Food in dog training & education – yes or no?

Just like any other training tool also treats cannot be considered automatically good or bad – it depends on the way it is used. It can be used correctly and incorrectly.

But what does correctly mean? In my opinion, we can consider the use of treats to be correct, if the result is following:

  • Dog understood what we wanted to teach him
  • We do not have to hold a treat in our hand for the dog to react correctly – this point/phase is often forgotten and fact that dog is listening only in a case that the trainer has food in hand is the most frequently used objection against using of food rewards in training. The truth is, that if the dog is not listening without food in our hand does not mean food is not good training tool, but it means that this tool was not used correctly
  • Dog does not have overweight or another health issue connected to excessive consumption of treats or using of unhealthy treats

How to use treats correctly depends on what we are trying to achieve. Based on the target I am dividing 3 categories:

1. CREATING OF POSITIVE ASSOCIATION WITH SOME ITEM, PERSON, SITUATION…

To put it simply, in this case, we are not rewarding the dog “for some behavior”, but we are giving treat to the dog “in the context of/in relation to” some external stimuli. We are creating the association on the basis of classical conditioning.

In this scenario, food can be used for the purposes of socialization, introducing the dog to various items and situations and addressing issues related to fear and aggression. I will not describe specific techniques as it is not subject of this article. The important information here is, that it is a valid use of food treats and it is something different than obedience training.

2. TRaining (obedience, various tricks…)

There are 3 main usages of treats in training:

  1. lure in lure-reward training ( the dog is following the treat in hand)
  2. “reward” in various training techniques (shaping, capturing…)
  3. distraction when increasing the criteria for some exercise

Again, I will not write about every category in detail, but I want to write one important information here: in training, it is necessary to understand treats as “training bicycle wheels”. It should be used for the dog “to understand what we want from him”. We need to phase out the treats for the dog to be able to react correctly on auditory or visual cue regardless if there is a food in our hand or not.

3. MAINTENANCE OF EXISTING BEHAVIOR

This can be best explained using the analogy with muscle training in the gym. When we are training in the gym, our muscles get stronger in time. However, if we stop to exercise for some time, muscles are getting weaker again – so we need to maintain them if we do not want to lose them. Same as muscles, also behavior patterns can “get weaker in time” and it has to be also maintained after it was trained – and for such a maintenance, food treats can be used.

It means, that we can give a dog a treat also for already taught behavior, but not for every correct response. Effective reinforcement schedule is for example to reward  around 30% of correct reactions (again, we are talking about already taught behavior which we want to maintain on the some level)

Beware using treats to gain dog’s attention

Incorrect usage of food is gaining dog’s attention. For example, if a dog is ignoring us on a walk or in a dog park, it is not good to take a treat to hand and lure the dog. The problem is, that in this context it is difficult to phase out the lure and dog will learn to pay attention only if we have something in our hand. Also, we will help ourselves only for some time. Later we will have to use better and better treats and we will end up with roasted chicken. If we have a problem with dog’s attention, we need to do specific exercises with the dog, which will gradually lead to improvement. Some of these exercises will be covered in another articles or videos.

Conclusion

To sum up  – attention should never be gained using food. We need to be able to gain it using auditory signal or by body language. If we are not able, we need to focus on it and perform specialized exercises for increasing the willingness of the dog to pay attention to us.

In training, the treat should be used to “explain” to the dog what we want from him. We need to phase out the treats gradually and we should gradually enter the “maintenance mode”.  It is important to avoid unhealthy treats and the usage can’t lead to overweight or other health issues.

In addition to mentioned, treats can be used also to create positive associations for socialization purposes – introducing to various items, situations and to address fears.

There is a lot of stuff which can be written about treats – what kind, what are the best practices of usage in various training techniques (luring, shaping, capturing, …) and what are the techniques of phasing treats out. These topics will be covered in future articles or videos.

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