Dogs are hungry and greedy (and other reasons why trainers should use treats)


One of the most common questions I get asked as a dog trainer is: When can I stop using food rewards? My response: Why wouldn’t you want to use food?

One of the selling points of positive reinforcement training is that you can use food as a teaching tool, not as a forever tool; train your dog a solid behavior and then you can wean them off the constant treats. First you’re a vending machine–every correct behavior gets a food reward. But then you become a slot machine. If your dog never knows when the reward is coming, he will keep trying. He’ll think: I better do the right thing because maybe THIS is the time the reward will come! 

While this is completely true, I don’t agree with the goal of totally removing food from a training regimen.  Just as a slot machine always offers some hope of reward, so should a dog trainer. 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 because we are not able to make our dogs obey us?

The answer is no. I, like other dog trainers I know, love dogs endlessly, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe they 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 little to do with how they feel about us. Dogs are greedy, mostly for food. And their food intake is something over which we have a lot of control.

Trainer Steve White puts it another way: what we humans see as distractions, dogs usually 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 abandon the kinds of reinforcements that can fit in our pockets, how can we ever compete with environmental reinforcements?

A trainer should deliver food to a dog like a slot machine delivers coins: Inconsistently, perhaps. But the casino never closes.

As humans, we are cunning, though, we can take advantage of these environmental rewards. We can control our pets’ access to them. 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. If you happen to have your dog off-leash at the wrong place at the wrong time, all kinds of reinforcers lurk to encourage behaviors that you might necessarily be training: A cat suddenly appears from around the corner; raccoons are just all over the place. If you don’t have something of great value in our pockets when you need it, the behaviors that you have spent so much time working on will start to fade away. You can’t fit cat chasing and raccoon hunting in your pocket like you can a couple pieces of dried liver. Not every behavior you like needs to be reinforced every time, but having proper reinforcement handy exactly when you need it can make a world of difference.

We have other thing with us “just in case” all the time. You have your cell phone with you most of the time. It’s not like you absolutely need it al the time, but what if there is an important phone call/message? How about driving a car without the spare tire? You rarely use it, but when you have a puncture aren’t you forever grateful? A similar principle applies to our life with dogs. If you have a reactive dog that you’ve worked with, you’re probably used to rewarding any time he checks in with you: anything suspicious in the environment, when your dog sees it, he turns to look at you in expectation of a treat. True, you don’t need to reward that behavior every single time after systematic groundwork but when there is a really huge environmental distraction and your dog chooses to look at you instead of the stimulus that their every instinct is screaming to go after, it’s crucial. If you don’t have anything to reward your dog with, your bank account just went into a huge overdraft. Personally, I hate it when this happens to me.

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:

  • I reward my dog for every recall. I need this behavior to be a sure thing.
  • When my dog drops something out of his mouth, be it a toy or something icky, I reward. I always want him to know that what I have in store is worth relinquishing his prized mouthful of…whatever.
  • In the dark, if my dog makes the choice to not bark at the neighborhood nemesis, he deserves whatever my pockets might hold.
  • Going out of the gate of the dog park when it’s time to go.
  • Letting me leash him up after off-leash time.

Food is just so damn convenient. It fits in your pockets, the dog loves it, you can deliver it rapidly and several times in a row if required. So, I happily admit that I will always be a “feeder.”  I will never stop using food as a reinforcement with my dog, no matter how old he is.

I have absolutely no problem with that. And I’m sure he doesn’t, either.


This post originally appeared on ClickerTrainingToronto.

Featured illustration from Rose Red Cottage. 


8 Responses

  1. Jo

    November 2, 2012 10:44 am

    Excellent! This needs to be said more often. It’s no more effort to remember to stick some treats in a pocket than it is to remember poo bags. I also reward key behaviours consistently, but I sometimes jackpot a recall off something really distracting, to keep my dog guessing.

  2. bredon

    December 13, 2012 2:26 pm

    you should train your dog in such a way that it can understand that it have to obey your instruction in any way. Same can be done with food also. so that your dog will know that what is it food timing and what it will get in food.

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