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Phasing out food rewards in dog training

Ask a Trainer!


B.T. writes, "I'm trying to train my dog to do basic commands like sit and lay down, and at first he was doing great. But now, no matter how many cookies I give him, he seems distracted and won't listen, much less do what I ask. Please help!"

Dear B.T.,

Food can work wonders in motivating your dog, and getting him interested in learning new things. However, food is an extrinsic motivator of behavior; and the ultimate goal of positive reinforcement training is to build a dog's intrinsic drive to work with and for his guardian.

So, here are some tips for using, and discontinuing use, of treats while training your dog:

1. When introducing a new behavior, or working with your dog to tackle a behavior that's especially challenging for him, use food liberally.

2. As your dog gets better at a specific behavior, use food rewards only every third or fourth time he offers the behavior, versus every time or every other time. Alternate using food rewards with petting and verbal praise, until eventually you can remove food from the equation altogether.

3. Because instilling intrinsic motivation in your dog is the ultimate goal, you must keep him motivated and interested in learning by keeping him challenged. By rewarding your dog with food only during the learning process (and not once he already knows a behavior), he will grow to love learning new things, and, he will offer an ever-growing repertoire of behaviors with no food reward necessary.

4. It's best to train in fits and spurts throughout the day, rather than doing one, concentrated daily training session –before which you grab a particular bag or container filled with treats. If you only pull out the treats just before training, your dog's excitement will go through the roof at the sound and smell and sight of "that bag". When this happens, food becomes a distraction from learning, rather than a productive element of the learning process. It's better to keep treats on you (like a handful in your pocket), and use them strategically to reward your dog intermittently, during random moments that you ask him for a behavior. Keeping food on you will help desensitize your dog to the smell, and there won't be a big to-do when pulling out a crinkly bag of dog cookies each time you decide it's time to train.

5. Be very careful not to let your dog train you! Let's say you've asked your dog to lay down; he doesn't do it. So you pull out the treats and ask him again. This time, he complies. You've just (unintentionally) rewarded your dog's refusal to do what you asked. Use food rewards for incentive, motivation, and reward, but never as "bribery".

I hope this helps!


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