“If you use food as a reward in dog training your dog will never respect you.” “Your dog will only work when you have food in your hand.” “You will be bribing the dog.” “The dog must work because he loves you.”
Yes, when I started dog training 40 years ago, these were just some of the warnings I received. Food was only to be given at dinner time. And even that was only once a day. Who was I to doubt what I was being told? Luckily for me, and for my dogs, I’ve always been curious. Never one to take things at face value, I was, and am, an examiner, an experimenter.
My first dog took the brunt of what I was being taught in dog training classes. And by the only dog trainer on TV, Barabara Woodhouse. ‘Training Dogs the Woodhouse Way’ was a must watch for this aspiring dog trainer. Coupled with the weekly town hall classes, I was an avid student. I practised hard and taught my dog how to sit, lie down, stay and most importantly, heel. Much of this was unpleasant. I won’t describe in detail what I was taught (for fear of anyone reading this trying the methods out). But I was adept at the techniques and my dog learned quickly.
Looking back, I’m relieved. It meant that I didn’t have to make learning horrible for my beloved dog past the initial stages. As a child who had longed for a dog her whole life – the full 9 years of it – having a dog of my very own was huge. We spent countless hours together roaming the hills and walks that surrounded our Scottish home. He was my confidante, my playmate, my best friend. I don’t recall how or when it happened, but a feeling of discomfort and doubt about the ‘right’ way to train started creeping in. Couple that with the happy discovery that when I shared my sweets, I could get any dog, not just mine, to do exactly what I wanted. And you have the beginnings of me using food rewards in training.
Food rewards don’t only work with dogs
I used food when I went to play with my friend’s foal. Carrots were given liberally when teaching him to follow me, put a head collar on and allow me to groom him. This only stopped when I became scared of him. He would rear and prance when I came into the field. Only later did I understand that he was showing joy and pleasure. And that I could have used the carrots to teach him how to do so safely.
I used Curly Wurlys (long tangles of toffee coated in chocolate) to train many a neighbourhood dog. I had no idea of the danger of feeding dogs chocolate. It was fortuitous that the chocolate was of such poor quality that I doubt a crate never mind small pieces of the sweets could harm any dog. I’d proudly pound the pavements with a huge Newfoundland that belonged to my mum’s friend. He’d trot by my side, lead loose. With everyone else, he was a handful. But for me, and my Curly Wurly, he was a dream.
Fast forward to working as a dog trainer, and I was firmly in the food reward camp. I’d learned why it worked, how to use it effectively and when to limit it’s use. I’d used it with companion dogs and working dogs, specifically scentwork and assistance dogs. It was not, and never will be, my only reward method, but it was the one that I found worked across the board. It helped me to build trust and interest quickly. And let me work with physically powerful and delightfully delicate dogs with equal success.
To this day, I use food to teach most skills. I can give the dog visual guidance as to where I’d like her to be, what I’d like her to do. Without putting my hands on her to move her around. The days of pushing dogs into position are long over. I say that, and that is the situation for me and my enlightened colleagues. I know for some, ‘physical modelling’ is still their go to strategy. But trust me, there’s no need for it.
Throughout the years of teaching others to train their dogs, I found that a lot of my time was spent explaining why food is a great reward choice. When I realised just how much time was taken up in class with these explanations I decided to write them down. That became ‘Jackpot! A Simple Guide to Food Rewards’. Written in 1996 it was my first foray into writing as part of earning my living. Since then I authored Detector Dog and wrote the revised version of the John Fisher classic ‘Think Dog’ [affiliate] plus numerous articles, handouts and booklets.
I wrote the guide to use as a handout in class. But unlike the others which were a maximum of 2 A4 pages, this was longer. So I made it into a booklet and started selling it to other trainers for them to use in their classes. Revised in 2003, with just a few tweaks here and there, it continued to be a useful addition to puppy packs and dog class products. Organisations such as the Association of Pet Dog Trainers added it to their required and recommended reading lists for new trainers.
I couldn’t have been more surprised. Or more proud. To help others to a better understanding through my little guide was wonderful. Just recently I dusted it off to be included as a bonus offering as part of the Support Skills course I’d made. And today, I added it to my shop as a download. I still love this guide and can’t believe I wrote it 24 years ago!
Not as simple as it seems
Of course, for most dogs, rewarding with food isn’t quite as simple as just handing over titbits. You occasionally get the odd dog who quickly works out what you want. But more often you need to do a little more work. You need to check that the dog likes the food. Yep, not all dogs like all food. Never assume. Always give a freebie before you start training. I’ve known dogs who love to work for pieces of pear, banana and even green beans! It might sound obvious, but if the dog doesn’t like the food (or doesn’t want the food) it is not a reward. To make matters worse, if you are trying to foist undesired titbits onto the dog, it could even become a disincentive to training.
Define the reward
Think about what you find rewarding. I love receiving, and giving flowers. (I recommend Serenata [affiliate], a company I’ve been using for many years to send flowers to friends, colleagues and family.) I adore sweet treats, such as cake or chocolate. I delight in spending time in the countryside with my dogs. All of these are great rewards for me but might not work for you. Dogs are the same. Flowers and chocolates might be quintessential rewards because they work for the majority of folks. But for some they are not rewarding, they are closer to punishments than rewards. So choose your rewards according to what the learner needs rather than what we, the teachers, want to give. If your dog wants to perform a behaviour for the joy of making you smile, that’s wonderful. But that’s her choice. It’s not something that she can be ‘made’ to do.
Enhance the reward?
For some dogs, the reward can be enhanced if it is part of a routine. You might be thinking ‘A reward is a reward.’ But what if the reward stops working after just a couple of repetitions? You can enhance it by thinking about the delivery of the reward. It could be more exciting to toss the treat to be caught. Or sniffing around to find it. Or playing food circuits.
All these can be more exciting that simply handing the food to the dog. I talk about all this in my Support Skills course. You can see food circuits in action and learn how to teach your dog to catch. I’ve included these skills in my section on Play because play is everything. Play is where the dog can learn to associate the acquisition of skills with pleasure. Whether the play involves food, toys or just you, it is a powerful and essential part of your training repertoire.
Failure to reward is failure to teach
To reward desirable behaviour is not a luxury. It is part of learning. Failure to reward is failure to teach. So keep your reward treasure chest open. Fill it with as many foods, activities, places and sensations as you can. Swimming, running through the woods, visiting friends, cuddles on the sofa, destuffing a toy, gnawing on a chew, searching for scent, eating cheese, chasing waters as it spouts out of a hose. Whatever your dog loves should be in that chest ready to be used to help her learn, to help her skill up and to help her make the most of every day. If your dog isn’t learning, examine the offered ‘reward’.
Solo, the Large Munsterlander
Here’s an example. I wanted to teach my Large Munsterlander to fetch me his collar when it was time to go for a walk. But I just couldn’t get it right. I struggled and failed so many times it’s almost embarrassing. Finally I gave up the trial and error method and sat down to really investigate where I was going wrong. The answer was the reward.
Now this is a dog who loved to eat. Who loved to play. He was tactile and connected. But none of these were working. What did he love the most? Going for a walk. That was the answer. And the issue. The pleasure of going for a walk outstripped the rewards I was offering for him bringing me his collar. He was already anticipating the walk and so his usual rewards were no longer desirable. They paled when compared to his joy of stepping out the front door.
And so I changed the training routine. I placed the collar on the floor. If he looked at it, even just a glance, I immediately put it on him and we went for a walk around the block. This quickly escalated into him picking it up and pushing it towards me. In two days he’d mastered the task. The task we’d been working on for months, maybe even years. All because I finally worked out how to reward the desired behaviour.
Learn from the dog
I always found him a tricky dog to train. Not because he was stupid (I don’t believe that of any dog!) but because he was very definite about his rewards and how and when I should use them. He never gave me the benefit of the doubt. If I got it wrong he’d continue to do his own thing. But when I got it right, he was a delight. He learned extremely fast. All the while I was trying to keep up with him never mind get a step ahead. This dog taught me a great amount of the value of rewards. And of choosing the right reward for the right time.
What can be your dog’s all time favourite steak snack can quickly be cast aside when she has the choice of staying with you or running along the beach. Especially if that run includes chasing seagulls! So don’t get complacent. Don’t think you’ve got it all wrapped up. Rewards change according to dog, environment, emotional state, activity, and on and on. My advice? List your dogs rewards. And then list when those rewards work best. That way you’ve got a viable starting point the next time you want to train. And as a quick pro tip to finish on – never run out of rewards!
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