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Food and Dog Training

Matt Hendricks

Matt Hendricks

Dog trainer and behaviorist.

As I have discussed in my blog post about balanced dog training, food is one of the many tools I use when training a dog.  That being said, using food during training has gotten a bit of a bad reputation because dog owners who have gone to a purely positive trainer or to a class at a pet store have usually tried to use food or treats to train their dogs with little or no success, or they only have success when food is present.  So, the question arrises, why would I want to use it if it doesn’t work, and can it be used in such a way that it does work?

The short answer is this, if you use food properly and if you use a balanced training approach, food can work very well and can make training your dog much easier.  In addition to that, if you use food during training the way I do, there is no chance of your dog becoming dependent on the food, and your dog will respond to you whether or not food is present.  Let me explain why.

Possible Problems With Using Food

So, in order to understand the right way to use food during training, you first have to understand how people use food ineffectively for training purposes.  In my opinion, there are four main mistakes that people make when they use food during dog training.

  1. People use treats instead of their dog’s daily food.
  2. People still feed their dogs outside of training.
  3. People only train their dogs with food present.
  4. A balanced training approach is not used.

Here are some of the problems which may develop when using food as described above.

  1. Your dog may only behave when food or treats are present
  2. Your dog may only work for the food if something more interesting (like a rabbit for instance) is not present
  3. Your dog may only obey you if they are hungry
  4. Your dog may never stop doing unwanted behaviors.

Training With Food Successfully

With that in mind, what do you need to do to use food successfully?

  1. You have to use the dog’s daily food and not treats.
  2. You cannot feed the dog outside of training.  The only time the dog can eat is while he is being trained.
  3. When food is present during training, your dog only gets it when he does the correct behavior on the first try, and even then, he does not get food for every time he does the correct behavior.  
  4. The food is not used to bribe or lure the dog to do the right behavior, but is only used as a reward after the dog does the correct behavior on his own.
  5. You have to also regularly do training sessions with your dog where food is not even present.
  6. You have to use a balanced dog training approach.  Food cannot be your only tool. You need to have a way to tell your dog when he is doing something wrong.

So, here is why this works.  Once your dog eats all of his meals during training, he realizes that if he wants to eat, then he needs to do what you ask, because he knows that he will not get a chance to eat any other way.  This is a very powerful motivator for your dog because he knows that he must eat to live, so suddenly, training becomes very important to him, even more so than outside distractions such as other dogs, people, rabbits, etc.

Also, your dog learns to do the training well because he knows that he has to do the correct behavior the first time.  He realizes that he does not get food every time he does the correct behavior on the first try, so he learns to pay attention all the time, because he never knows which time he will get a food reward.  And since the food is not used as a bribe or lure, the dog learns to do the behavior on his own, because he knows that is the only way to get fed.

Finding The Training Balance

Using a balanced training approach means that you do some training sessions without food present.  During these sessions, you are able to motivate your dog to do the desired behavior using other tools such as a leash or e-collar.  This is a really important point, because even though you are using food as a positive motivator for your dog, you also have a way to motivate him to do things without food.  This is relevant for three reasons. First, if there is a distraction that your dog focuses on over you, you still have a way to communicate with him and get his attention. Second, as I discussed in my blog post on balanced dog training, it is important to be able to communicate with your dog what specifically he is doing both right and wrong.  Otherwise it is unreasonable for you to expect him to stop a bad behavior. Third, in the real world you will not have food present most of the time, and while it can be a great tool to use during training, you need to make sure that your dog will obey you in distracting environments even when you don’t have any food with you.  Essentially, if you use food for training your dog, you can train your dog without feeding your dog, but you cannot feed your dog without training your dog.

In most cases, people are able to use food during training for the first few weeks or months and then transition into feeding their dog other ways.  That being said, it is not harmful if you want to feed your dog this way for longer and many dogs really enjoy working for their food this way.

So, food can be a great tool to use during dog training to help motivate your dog to want to do what you want him to do.  And if you use food in the ways I have described above, you can still have a dog that behaves and listens really well even in distracting real world environments and without food present.  Because ultimately, dog training is about the relationship you have with your dog, and all tools – including food – are simply tools that you can use to help you communicate with your dog effectively and build a relationship that is mutually based on both trust and respect.  Because if you can do that, your dog will be a joy to live with.

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