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October 20, 2008

Food Use in Training

By: Johanna Ammentorp, Hi5 Dog Training

The use of food in dog training has been the subject of much controversy ever since formal dog training has begun. Depending on whose research you read, ten thousand or more years ago dogs began hanging with us because of the availability of a food source. As dog training developed a ‘quid pro quo’ relationship began to form. You, the dog, do something for me, the human, and you will get something for it. Dinner. Dogs from day one were not viewed as pets, but as animals that could help make our lives easier. And we paid them for it.

However, as training evolved, and dogs became domesticated, people began viewing the use of food in training as unnecessary. Sometimes training became harsh. Dogs learned, through negative techniques, that to ‘take the pressure off’ it was best to comply with what was being asked.

Then, about ten to twenty years ago positive training techniques began to creep into dog training. The pendulum began to swing the other way, and some prominent trainers believed that dogs could be taught with ONLY positive methods. This is actually a quite popular theory today, and many trainers bill themselves as ‘purely positive’ trainers. The method of choice, for this training, is food based. It’s easy to see why. Food is a powerful tool. And herein lies the problem. It’s easy to get in trouble if it’s used the wrong way.

So, what is the right way and wrong way to use food? There are three ways in which people use food in training. Many people do not recognize the difference and this is how the trouble begins.

Food as a lure.
This is perfectly acceptable in the early stages of training. Let’s say that a dog is afraid of going into a crate. Luring a dog into a crate is a great way for a dog to see that going into a space, in which he may not want to go has positive results.

Food as a reinforcer.
Always remember that behaviors, which are positively rewarded, will be repeated. So, food used as a reinforcer is a way to communicate with the dog that the behavior, which just occurred, is a behavior you will want to see again. Food used in this way is not present. It may be in your pocket, on a shelf, perhaps even in another room. It may also be given randomly. So, using the example of the dog going into his crate, the dog now understands that going into the crate is not frightening. You will no longer need to lure him into it. But, you could practice sending him to his crate and reinforce that behavior when he willingly goes in.

Food as a bribe.
This is the one that gets people in trouble and it’s the way that dogs begin training us. Again, using the example of the crate, the dog now understands that ‘go to your crate’ means stop what you are doing and go to your crate! However, one day he does not go to his crate. So, the trainer rattles a treat bag or throws a treat in the crate and the dog goes in. The next time the dog is told to ‘go to his crate’ he waits to see the treat. This is when people begin thinking that training with food has yielded negative results. They begin to think, ‘my dog only works for me when I have a treat in my hand’. Therefore FOOD SHOULD NEVER BE USED AS A BRIBE!

So, how can we tell the difference? It’s easy. Food as a lure is ALWAYS used as a way to introduce a NEW behavior. Or a learned behavior, but in a NEW environment. Again, take the example of the crate. The dog may have learned to accept HIS crate, which let’s say is a wire crate, but not a hard plastic crate at your friends house who is boarding him for the weekend. In this situation, it would be acceptable to lure him into the crate.

Food as a positive reinforcer is used to communicate to the dog that what he just did you really loved and will want to see that behavior again. It can be used for any behavior. Coming when called, calm behavior in the presence of other dogs, learning to heel, sit, the possibilities are endless. You can shape behavior with food. For example you could teach a down at first by using food as a lure, then using it as a reinforcer, then by only reinforcing fast downs. Also, as the dog becomes trained you can reward intermittently.

How can you be sure you are never using food as a bribe? If you are certain that your dog knows a command, and has preformed that command in a variety of places and with different distractions, then NEVER get out food to get him to comply. This is where the discrepancy comes in between ‘purely positive’ trainers, and trainers that simply use food as a tool. If I have assessed that my dog knows a command thoroughly, in many different environments, and under distractions, and he is not complying, I will most definitely go and correct my dog. If I feel that my dog is stressed or confused, but still may understand what I want, I go and show my dog and help him perform the command. I may at that point still use food as the reinforcer.

So, as an example, if I am working eye contact with my obedience-titled Corgi, she would get a small pop on the leash for looking away, no matter what environment. However, a newly trained dog, obviously struggling to keep eye contact in the face of tremendous distraction would certainly need to be reinforced with food. In the case of my puppy Toy Fox terrier puppy in a busy environment, I may use food as a lure and hold the treat up to my face.

The ONLY event that I would ever condone using food as a bribe is if your dog is loose and running away. Obviously, you would need to do whatever it takes to get your dog back. After you get your dog back, you will need to go in the house, roll up some newspaper and begin hitting yourself over the head for letting your dog off his line before he was trained to be off-leash!

Johanna Ammentorp, owner and instructor of Hi5 Dog Training, has been training and showing dogs in obedience, herding and agility for 40 years. She has owned 11 different breeds of all shapes and sizes. She is currently instructing classes, puppy through adult, at the Doggy Office Day Care facility. Call 262-783-PAWS for a schedule of classes.

user comments

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Wednesday, 01-10-08 18:19

another great article!
to bad their are so many "want to be dog owners"
i think the person/owner to be needs to take classes before even owning a pet waaaaay to many uncontroled dogs out their


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