If I use food in training, will my dog only listen when I have food?

Many people worry that using positive reinforcement, "treat training," or otherwise rewarding their dog with food in training will result in a dog who only listens when food in involved. And we totally understand why you might be concerned - even the most dedicated trainer will find herself without food in hand every once in awhile! The good news is that we don't have to use food for every behavior every time our dog performs it. If you are already using food in training and feel like your dog only listens when you have food in hand, making some adjustments in your mechanics can help.

What is reinforcement?

Reinforcement is anything that increases the likelihood of a behavior happening. There are two types of reinforcement; positive and negative. Positive means that we are adding something while negative means that we are taking something away. For example, when we use positive reinforcement, we might give a dog food when he does something that we like, such as sitting on cue. When we use negative reinforcement, we might remove our attention when a dog jumps on us. In most cases, positive reinforcement will achieve the most effective, long-lasting results as it is clear to the dog what we want him to do and builds positive (in this case, meaning good) associations with the behavior. There is a risk of fallout or an 'extinction burst' (the behavior gets worse before it gets better) when using negative reinforcement as we are not telling the dog what we would like him to do instead.


Every dog is different, and what is reinforcing to him will depend on his preferences. While one dog my love to receive pets and affection for a job well done, a dog who is afraid of or not comfortable with people will find that same pets and affection aversive. Food is the most common choice for reinforcement in training because it is universal; everyone has to eat. Which food is the most reinforcing, however, will depend on the dog. Some dogs LOVE braunschweiger while other dogs find it repulsive; some dogs will work for their normal kibble while other dogs need something with a higher value.


It's important to note that a dog who is scared or anxious may not take food. When a dog is in 'fight or flight' mode, he will very often refuse even his favorite food. When this happens, the dog is not in a state to train. Give him space and move him away from the thing that is worrying him. If he will not eat in any training situation, consult a Certified Professional Dog Trainer or your veterinarian to determine your best next step.


Choosing reinforcement.

We can utilize all kinds of reinforcement in training, and the best reinforcement depends on the situation. There are some situations in which using a high value food (like real meat) is more often than not the best option, such as when changing a dog's conditioned emotional response to something that he is afraid of (for example, a dog who is reactive to other dogs out of fear). But there are plenty of situations in which another form of reinforcement is just as effective.


What a dog finds reinforcing will vary by dog. Some things to consider as reinforcement options:

• Food

• Play/toys

• Sniffing/exploring a new environment

• Pets/affection

• Moving away from something

• Going outside

• Being released from a crate or other restraint


When choosing a reinforcement option, we want to choose something that fits our desired energy level. If the goal is for our dog to lay calmly on his bed, high energy play is probably not the most effective reinforcer; instead, we may choose a bone to chew on or calm affection.


Real-life scenarios can also be used as reinforcement. For example, if we ask our dog to sit and wait before going outside, the release and running out the door is reinforcement (as long as the dog enjoys going outside).


Proper mechanics.

If you find that your dog is only listening when you have food in your hand, altering your mechanics will likely make a big difference.


For behaviors that your dog already knows, following this order of operations helps make your communication with your dog clear:

1. Say the cue: Only say the cue once. Saying it over and over will weaken it. If your dog does not perform the behavior right away, proceed to the next step.

2. Use a physical cue, if needed: Use a physical cue to prompt your dog to perform the behavior. This could be patting your leg to encourage the dog to move towards you, or using a hand signal to prompt the dog to sit.

3. Mark the behavior: The second that your dog performs the behavior, mark it with a clicker, the word 'yes!,' or any other marker that your dog recognizes.

4. Reach for your food: The most common mistake is to grab your food before or as you give the cue. The food should be out of sight until you have marked the behavior. A treat pouch is really handy for this, but you may also put the food in your pocket or somewhere else out of the dog's eyesight.

5. Deliver the food: Bring the food directly to your dog's mouth or place it on the floor.

6. Reinforce the behavior every time: If we only reinforce the behavior every so often, it will likely weaken as the dog cannot predict whether or not he will receive reinforcement, so the behavior doesn't feel 'worth it.' The reinforcement does not need to be food each time, nor does it need to be the same thing each time - it can be any of the things listed above or that your dog enjoys.


Staring at the treat pouch.

Many people will find that their dog hyper-focuses on the treat pouch or "just knows" when they have food in their pocket. While adjusting your mechanics will typically make a difference, it may also be helpful to reinforce making eye contact with you. Start with a piece of food in your dog's line of vision, and mark and reward every time your dog so much as glances away from the food. As he's successful, begin to shape for eye contact by waiting until he looks toward you to mark and reward, and ultimately only marking and rewarding for making eye contact.


Improving your timing with marking the behavior.

It's important to be as precise as possible when marking the behavior you want to see. If we wait too long, we may actually be reinforcing a different behavior. For example, if we want to reinforce pottying in the yard, we need to mark and reward right as the dog finishes going; if we wait until he runs over to us, we are actually reinforcing coming to us, not going potty. If you find that you are struggling to mark the exact second your dog performs a behavior, practice using the clicker when your dog is not around. One fun way to do this is to bounce a tennis ball on the ground. Try to mark the second the ball hits the floor. The more your practice, the better you'll get; when you return to training with your dog, you'll find it easier to click quickly.


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