Why do we use food when training a dog or puppy?

Why do we use food when training a dog or puppy? by Anna Hope

'I don't need food to train my dog because they should do it for love'.

Ever heard anyone say this statement? I have.

Everyone is entitled to an opinion and I'm always a fan of everyone voicing their own individual dog training thoughts because polite discussion around topics is always a good thing.

BUT

I am really against such sweeping, generalising statements because if someone is using food, for whatever reason this sort of statement isn't helpful.

Usually the objections around using food come from a place of misunderstanding and sometimes from a lack of knowledge. Using food when training your dog is not a bad thing, it isn't bribery and when done correctly it gives your training quicker results, higher efficiency and boosts the relationship with you and your dog.

Showing your dog a piece of food in your hand to convince them to come back to you isn't training your dog, it is bribery and at the start of your training this might be just where you are at. If it means your dog is coming back to you rather than heading over to another dog (who might not be too keen having a dog zooming over to them at full speed) then it's where we can start from. It isn't a bad thing. It's ok.

It can become a bad thing if this is all you ever do for your training because there will eventually be that one time when whatever treat you have in your hand will not be enough to convince your dog not to run off.

Some of the benefits of using food for training:

✔️ It's a great motivator because dogs need food to live and if you have food to to use when training it also helps keep them focused.

✔️ You can do more successful repetitions of your training in a shorter space of time compared to other things or nothing. For example, when training a recall. On every occasion you practise this and your dog is by your side you can give them a food as a reinforcer and then you can go straight in to another repetition. If you use a toy in this situation you are dictated by your dog’s willingness to give up the toy, or if you use more than one toy, sometimes dogs just like to parade around with them. You can only do a small amount of repetitions in the same time frame.

✔️ Encourages safe hands around you and food and boosts your relationship. Feeding your dog by hand only encourages their understanding of how safe your hands are and polite behaviour around them.

✔️ Makes training fun. If your dog is having fun when you train, they are more likely to want to do it in the future and this is only a good thing, right?

✔️ It's adaptable and you can change it up to keep your dog’s interest.

The secret to using food in training is all around how to fade it out successfully so that when you haven't got a treat, your dog still understands what you are asking for and they are happy to oblige and the skill in this comes from teaching your dog that the process of training, in itself is brilliant. It isn't just brilliant if they get a piece of food at the end (or a toy).

This is the source of a lot of the confusion around using food and a question I am often asked is 'Do I have to use food forever?'.

The answer is no, but also yes. If you have faded out the food correctly then your dog doesn't need the food to do more training, however if you both enjoy it then why not continue?! It's all about filling in the knowledge gap between using food as a bribe (you do this you get this) and a dog doing things without a scrap of food in sight, this is where a good certified and trained dog trainer comes in.

They should be able to point out the benefits of using food as well as make sure you are doing it correctly. We want to avoid bribery in the long term and move to using it as a reinforcer instead. This is how we get away from using food forever.

We must however consider dogs that may have some concerns around food and for these I would never recommend you just start using food and hand feeding. You MUST obtain some genuine, tailored and expert advice from a dog behaviourist, not a dog trainer.

If you are reading this and think that your dog isn't that fussed with food, my advice is to keep looking! You haven't found it yet and it doesn't need to be an expensive treat you buy. Chopped carrots, apple, banana is all good or small pieces of hotdog, chicken or liver all work great too. Find what your dog likes and go from there.

Ultimately, I always think that if we make the learning process for our puppies or dogs as enjoyable, successful and motivated as possible, then it can only be a good thing, surely?

Using food whilst your dog is learning something isn't a bad thing.

Enjoy the journey together 💜

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