It’s hard to understand the almost pathological reluctance some people have to using food in dog training, when we have decades of research telling us that it is incredibly effective when done correctly. Much the same way that people would not expect to be paid before the completion of a job, we “cookie pushers” expect our dogs to perform a desired behavior before the food is forthcoming. In that way, we are reinforcing, rather than cueing a particular behavior with food. When food becomes a cue, the dog doesn’t do the behavior without seeing the cue. Hence the common beginner trainer lament, “He only comes when I have cookies.” But the dog that perceives food as a reinforcement will perform a behavior on a verbal or hand signal cue, hoping for the eventual reinforcement, which if the training has progressed correctly, isn’t always given after each and every behavior. Over time, we use variable rates of reinforcement versus continuous reinforcement to keep the dog’s motivation to perform strong.
There are some terrific resources online to help you understand the benefits of training with a paycheck (the paycheck can be food, toys, a game, but should be something the dog is interested in, versus something you;d prefer to use). Our friends at 4PawsUniversity have a page on training dogs with food that dispels some common myths. The Pet Professional Guild’s handout on the use of food is very useful in understanding the process, too. The most important reason, however, for using motivational training methods is that it saves your dog from living a life where “mistakes” are “corrected” (and keep in mind the dog is just being a dog), versus a lifetime of learning new things and gaining pleasant consequences from YOU. What could be better than to have your dog be unafraid in your presence and seeking your approval, rather than being just “obedient” and wishing you were nicer sometimes?
Roo, owned by trainer Jamie Popper, a dog that was trained using clicker training, with food and toys as motivators, is shown practicing a dumbbell retrieve. Why would anyone want to train using the very old-fashioned “ear pinch” method after seeing that? Plus, a dog that is joyfully retrieving in this way can easily be shaped to a more precise retrieve for competition purposes without dampening his enthusiasm, just as the late Dr. Yin shaped her dog to a more precise behavior of putting two paws in a box in this video.
The possibilities for fun with your dog are endless when they’ve been exposed to a learn to earn strategy! Training by using successive approximations can result in some very cool tricks, as well as a way for your dog to get some mental and physical exercise on those rainy or snowy days when you just don’t want to take a long walk.
At home, you can use your dog’s dinner to train with. Or you can use some healthy treats or real meat, depending on how distracting the environment in which you are training is. Just don’t be afraid to use food and don’t be stingy! Just learn to use good timing, proper mechanics, and go forth and train with joy. #usefood