When can I leave food away from training? My answer is never.

Or lets put it this way: why on earth would you want to? This is one of the most common questions I get asked as a dog trainer. One of the selling points of clicker training is: train your dog a solid behavior and then you can wean the food away. First you’re a vending machine, then you will become a slot machine. If your dog never knows when the reward is coming they will keep trying.

While this is completely true, I don’t agree with the urge of leaving food out of training. The emphasis should be on the word slot machine. The reason why many people feel the need to get rid of food in training presumably stems from the old school training methods according to which the dog should just do behaviors for us because we tell them to. Is using food in training a sign a weakness in us? If we don’t get rid of food does it mean that we are bad dog owners not being able to make our dogs obey us?

The answer is no. You hear me and other trainers say this a lot: dogs are opportunistic, selfish creatures who don’t do anything for us out of courtesy. They will do whatever they find most reinforcing for them at a particular moment in time. Period. It has nothing to do with us. As Steve White says: what we humans see as distractions, dogs see as reinforcements. The smells (oh boy, my life with an intact male dog is ALL about the smells), other dogs, squirrels, raccoons, cats. We all know how annoying they can be. Our dogs go after them. If we decide to leave away reinforcements that we can fill our pockets with, how can we ever compete with environmental reinforcements? As humans we are cunning, though, we can take advantage of these environmental rewards. In exchange for polite behaviors our dogs get to go and investigate all of this stuff. But as most of us know it is not always that easy. You happened to have your dog off-leash at the wrong place at the wrong time, a cat suddenly appeared from around the corner, the raccoons are just all over the place. If we don’t have something of great value in our pockets when we need it, the behaviors that we have spent so much time working on will start to fade away. This is the slot machine part. What this means is that you need to have the reinforcement handy exactly when you need it. Unfortunately, having left it at home is not going to do anything for you.

How many of us cannot go anywhere these days without bringing our cell phone with us? It’s not like we need it every time but what if there is an important phone call/message? How about driving a car without the spare tire, we rarely need it, but when you have a puncture aren’t you forever grateful for the spare tire (provided that you can change a tire :-D)? A similar principle applies to our life with dogs. If you have a reactive dog, you’re probably used to rewarding those auto-watches that your dog offers you: anything suspicious in the environment, when your dog sees it, they turn to look at you in expectation of a treat. True, you don’t need to reward for it every single time after systematic groundwork but when there is a really huge environmental mayhem and your dog chooses to look at you instead of the stimulus that their every instinct is screaming to go after, if you don’t have anything to reward your dog with, MAN, your bank account just went into a huge overdraft. Personally, I hate it when this happens to me. Therefore, this or something of similar kind is what I always have in my pockets when I go outside with my dog:

The treats in the bag by the way are self-made because that is what my dog craves for. I have no problems with accommodating my outfit so that I can fit it all in.

Besides being  a slot machine to reward my dog to maintain nice behaviors, there are some things that I reward my dog for every single time:

  • Recall, absolutely and always I reward my dog for recall, why would I not?!
  • Drop, when my dogs drops something out of their mouth, be it a toy or something icky, I reward it with something, either food or toy.
  • Decision not to bark at the neighborhood nemesis in the darkness.
  • Going out of the gate of the dog park.
  • Leashing my dog up after off-leash time.

Food is just so damn convenient. It fits in your pockets, the dog loves it, you deliver it rapidly and several times in a row if required. I’m happily admitting it: I will never stop using food as a reinforcement with my dog no matter how old they are :-D! And I must say I have absolutely no problem with that.

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5 responses to “When can I leave food away from training? My answer is never.

  1. I disagree that a dogs behaviors will fade without food reward. A good dog, a rub behind the ears, a frisbee throw or what ever will do just fine. Food is not convenient to carry. Especially in warm weather.

    I have a border collie who I can stop on a dime when deer etc cross the road, the yard, what ever and I have not rewarded her in any way than a physical pet, play etc. I know plenty of dogs that are as good or better than she is. Your behavior fading concept just doesn’t hold water.

  2. Hi Jerry,

    Thanks for your comment. The point of my blog was that you need to keep providing your dog some kind of primary reinforcement to sustain behaviours. Whatever it is totally depends on the dog, play/attention are just as good as long as the animal loves it. This is just basic learning theory, nothing else. The reason why my focus was on food because that’s what people mostly wonder about.

  3. I seldom use food anymore when training, as it is not convenient for pet owners, when we could just use petting them to reward their behavior instead of treats, especially when being pet is what they want.

  4. Hi CBP,

    Thanks for your comment, please see my reply above. Petting is amazing if the dog enjoys it!

  5. On a similar topic, here is Caryn Charlie talking about how food is such a powerful reinforcer for the dogs:
    http://whattapup.wordpress.com/2012/01/01/do-you-train-with-treats/

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