Tuesday, December 11, 2012

"So, how long do I need to use food [when training]? ...

As a "sequel" to my previous post "But he'll always do it for food..." I wanted to continue with this topic.  The first blog post was meant to explain why some dogs will only do it for food, and seemingly make it appear that "food in training doesn't work".  However, it wasn't meant to say that I do not condone the use of food or think that food should be faded fast and dogs should "just do it".  (If you misread that post please go back and re-read it in it's entirety and view all the attached videos. However hopefully this little sequel will help too!)

I find that many dog owners, as the previous post stated, don't understand this topic at all.  They think that all dogs should be taught the desired behavior and then just do it, with no reward after they "know it".  I do not agree with this. Why? Well do you go to work and after you are proficient at your job you are expected to just show up and work as proficiently?  No checks any more, just do it because you're so good at it?  I'm sure you'd soon find a new job if that were the case! I love my job. I'm doing exactly what I wanted to do since I was a kid -- work with dogs!  However, even I still have to get paid and rewarded for what I do. I will even admit that not working for someone else can be unrewarding due to the fact that there are no bonuses, no rewards for doing a good job.  I only get to reward myself. I don't hear it from anyone else.  I do get rewarded with  my great clients and the successes of the clients and their dogs.  Those are rewards and with those rewards I continue to do what I do!  

What amazes me is how dogs are put in such a different category than humans but they have the same expectations we have of humans. How does this make sense?  Our dogs should learn something and "just do it" without any reward but they should perform as well as humans do when they know what to do at their jobs.  However, after time the dog's "paycheck" should cease, according to many humans, but the human will remain getting paid as long as he's performing his job.  It's really not fair, regardless of the fact that a human and a dog are very different species. It's the "you can't have your cake and eat it too" mantra. 

I will admit that my dogs rarely get food for performing simple tasks, like sit  or down or "go to the rug" [and stay].  They know those cues well as I use them often. But that does not mean they don't get some sort of payment or reward.  A reward does not always mean food or treats.  Rewards are defined by the dog. This is where I discussed the "Life Rewards" in the other blog post.  I also always, always, always tell my dogs when they do it right -- "Go to the rug, Noah. .... Goooood boy.  That's a good boy..."  I never leave out the verbal rewards, ever.  And my dogs are now 7 years and 10 years old. I also give life rewards often, always in fact if there is no food involved or new behaviors being taught.  Remember, your dog's life reward is defined by your dog, the environment and the context.  If your dog has to pee, he's got his little paws crossed dying to be let outside, then the life reward in that situation would be -- open the door and let him out!  So you could ask him to "sit" and then say, "Good boy..." now open the door and let him out.  There was his reward. Wa-la, you're done, you have given your dog a "Life Reward" which was defined by your dog in that moment.

More examples of Life Rewards:
  • If you are playing a game with your dog and a toy is involved, ask your dog to perform a task then wait for the dog to do it and then give the toy as the reward.
  • If putting the leash on your dog and going outside is extremely rewarding to your dog then ask him to perform a task then put the leash on as a the reward.
  • If getting on the couch to be pet is a reward to your dog ... you get the idea!
The more you start to incorporate life rewards with your dog after he's reliably been taught the desired behavior, then the more your dog will perform tasks when asked, regardless of what may or may not be in your hand, i.e., if food is present!

So back to the original question -- When do I remove food from the training equation? When will my dog begin to work reliably for Life Rewards?  The answer is: once you have properly taught your dog what you want him to do.  And when I'm starting out with training I'll use food or a toy or whatever is the most rewarding to the particular dog being trained.

Your dog should know the behavior being trained and perform it on cue.  This is when you can start to incorporate Life Rewards and intermittently give food rewards.  A cue is -- A stimulus that elicits a behavior. Cues may be verbal, physical (i.e., a hand signal), or environmental (i.e., a curb may become a cue to sit if the dog is always cued to sit before crossing a road). Here is an excellent video on when to add the cue.

Also, you will need to start to see your dog performing things in all environments and be able to generalize the behavior you have asked for.  This is explained best in my first blog post under reason 4) Training Gone Wrong ... Re-read that and watch the video listed there.  Visit that blog post here.

After all of the above is done properly then you'll see your dog needing less and less food and working when asked, regardless of whether food is present or not.  However, please do keep in mind you need to always reward your dog in some way and always praise him for performing any desired behavior/task.  Always, always, always.

Stacy Greer, CPDT-KA
Sunshine Dog Training & Behavior
servicing Dallas/Ft Worth, Texas


  1. Excellent, well written post

  2. Love your blog, Stacy! Very informative!

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