Food is one of the most important and useful tools in any dog owner's arsenal when training their dog, whether it be a new puppy or a new rescue. There is no quicker or more surefire way to get your dog's attention than to offer him or her a smelly, tasty treat. Positive reinforcement training absolutely relies on food rewards to draw out the appropriate behavior from most dogs and put it on cue, which is exactly what we, as dog owners want. Right?
In fact, it's not as straightforward as that. Food rewards, while extremely useful, can also cause difficulty for you and your canine. Particularly if they are not removed from training when your puppy is entering adolescence and adulthood. In the case of rescues, food rewards become problematic when they are used exclusively as a training method.
I'm going to talk about some of the reasons why it is critically important that you remove the promise of food from your interactions with your dog over time. I'm also going to explain to you how to do it.
What happens when we don't remove the food reward from our training and behavioral interactions with our dog? The answer depends on a few factors. The most important thing to understand when using food to train your dog is that the behaviors you are putting on cue may not be reliable in the absence of the food itself.
Let's look at one example. Imagine that you're in the dog park with your dog, having some social time with the other neighbourhood canines. Next thing you know, someone enters the dog park and leaves the gate wide open behind them. Excited by the entry of a new dog and person to the park, your dog speeds over to say hello. Sure enough, on the other side of the gate is another dog, this time on-leash. You reach into your pocket to pull out a treat to lure your dog back to your side except this time, you're wearing a different jacket. You find yourself with no treats available.
The danger is clear. If your dog makes it through that gate before a) the person who just entered clues in and closes it, and b) doesn't respond to your verbal command to return, you may be spending the next hour chasing him or her down. Let's look at another potential example.
You're having company. Someone entering the front door leaves it open a little longer than necessary and your dog slips out, across the yard and onto the sidewalk. The street is heavy with traffic. Perhaps you're aware of your dog slipping out right away and follow after - but again, you find yourself without a treat. Returning to the house to get one means you're taking your eyes off your dog for a good two or three minutes. You shout to your dog to come back, and he does. At least, part way. But upon sniffing the air around you, realizes you don't have a treat for him/her and takes off again for the street, tail wagging, having a great time.
The danger here is the traffic. And the fact that nothing is standing between it and your dog.
Some other issues that arise when food rewards are not phased out of our interactions with our dogs:
Obesity/extra weight. Being overweight causes a tremendous amount of discomfort for your dog, from painful joints, to lack of flexibility, inability to exercise for even short periods of time, lethargy, diabetes, stress on all internal organs, heart disease, increased blood pressure, digestive disorders, skin and hair problems, and decreased length and quality of life.
Scavenging. Dogs that are well-used, over a long period of time, to constant food reinforcement in terms of providing wanted or "good" behavior will often resort to aggressive scavenging when those rewards are not made readily available. This scavenging may take place in the home or when outside, on walks, or in the dog park. In a nutshell, every single time your dog sniffs even the slightest whiff of something that may be even partially edible, they're going to go for it quickly, sneakily, and aggressively. A dog used to the constant availability of food may also become aggressive about their food around other animals and humans. Thankfully, food aggression is generally a quick fix. If you have a food aggressive dog, seek out the help of a trainer right away.
So how do we make sure that our dog is going to listen to the commands we've put on cue with food when there isn't any food available?
In the dog training world, we call this process 'proofing'. Proofing doesn't only concern the removal of food rewards, but rather refers to the entire process of introducing distractions and different scenarios to your dog while putting the behavior we want on cue.
The first part of proofing in this instance is the removal of the food lure. To do this, start slow. You don't want to completely throw off your dog.
Start by going through the usual commands you use with your dog at any given time. Instead of giving a treat for each request your dog completes correctly, only give your dog a treat for every other request done correctly. Feel free to alternate the with your dog's favorite toy, stuffed animal, or a good scratch behind the ears. After a few iterations of this (also be sure to rotate your commands. You want at least three so that your dog cannot predict or preempt your next request), only offer the treat every third request. Continue like this until your dog does exactly what you ask within a few seconds of the request, and until you're not using treats at all. As you gradually pull back the treats, be sure to ramp up the verbal reinforcement. "Good boy/girl! Well done! What a good dog you are!" and the like will let your dog know just how happy you are with him/her. Using hand signals as well (consistency is key!) will give your dog an extra leg up in understanding exactly what you want from him/her.
The more fun you bring to training your dog, the more fun your dog will have. And because it will keep you and your furry companion keen and interested, you'll soon find that having fun with your dog is the best reinforcement of all.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, Decoding the Dog Park, and the Big Book of Dog Training.