But, My Dog Doesn't Like Treats...
So, you want to go the rewards-based training route, but your dog doesn't seem to really care all that much about the super-expensive, gourmet liver treats that the pet store employee assured you they'd love? Or, maybe your dog seems to LOVE treats at home, but once they walk out the front door they lose all interest? Why? And how can we address it?
Why Food is such a BIG DEAL in training...
You may be tempted to ditch the treats if your dog is lacking interest in them. Maybe you feel that it confirms the misconception that 'using food in training is bribery'... but before you do, understand why using food in training is so popular.
Firstly, dogs like food. Food has a positive value in their head (just like it does with us!). Granted, that 'value' differs between dogs, and is effected by genetics, health and the environment. But, for the most part, food is GOOD. So, when we use food to teach new skills, we're conditioning a positive association with... 1) training, 2) the particular skill we're teaching, 3) Us, their humans, and 4) the location we're training in. Not only that, but we can literally change how a dog feels about something they're unsure about, or afraid of by PAIRING that thing with food (counter-conditioning). There's an art to this, but in a nutshell; the more a dog likes food, the easier it is to assign a new, positive value to something that was previously scary.
Secondly, we get a whole lot of bang for our buck! Unlike when using compulsion, or even when using toys as rewards, we can get a tonne of repetitions of a new behaviour in one single training session by using food. Dog sits -> YES -> eats food -> dog sits -> YES -> eats food...etc. Repetition matters!! The more reps our dogs are rewarded for, the more value they have for the behaviour.
The alternative to rewards-based methods is compulsion-based training. If we don't have something the dog wants to work FOR, we're only left with using things that the dog wants to work to avoid. Don't get me wrong, compulsion is often necessary later in training when we want to ensure reliability, but used to TRAIN new behaviours? It's stressful for the dog. When done right. When done wrong? Well, let's just say it's really not in the best interest of anyone.
How Can I Get My Fussy Dog to Be Interested in Treats?
Well, let me tell you... I don't actually use treats in training. I use a dog's regular meals; their food.
1. My biggest piece of advice for owners about to embark on the rewards-based path is; DITCH THEIR FOOD BOWL. Take their regular old kibble, put it in a bait bag and make your dog work for their calories. I do, admittedly, add in some 'higher value' foods, such as cubed Prime100 rolls or minced meat. But still no stereotypical 'treats'.
If your dog is fed twice a day, that's two training sessions.
You may find, when you start trying to work your dog, that they're just not interested... but they will be when they figure out that they're not getting fed for free anymore. That may take one or two missed meals, but don't stress; this is temporary. And aside from the occasional missed meal, they'll still be getting ALL their calories. It'll just be coming from training.
2. And for the love of god, stop free feeding. Quit leaving their food bowl out for them to graze on. Dogs are creatures of FEAST OR FAMINE. Their entire biology reflects that. 'Grazing' is not natural, normal, or at all in their best interest.
3. Make a game out of the food delivery. Don't just hand your dog their food, make the food run away. Throw it, call the dog back to you, throw it again. Encourage your dog to chase your moving food-hand. There's an art to this too! Michael Ellis has some great free content on creating a 'reward-event' with food.
4. Monkey around with QUANTITY and QUALITY.
Yeah, you might find your dog is happy to work for their dry dog biscuits at home, but struggles with the same everywhere else. You could push the 'work to eat' philosophy, and withhold food until the dog ignores competing motivators and focuses on you. But I personally just use higher value food. This is where the minced meat, maybe some leftover chicken or steak, but most often the trusty PRIME100 rolls come into play. These are 'higher value', better quality food resources.
One rep of a behaviour doesn't have to equal ONE bit of food. If we have a big dog that's working for their BIG, twice daily meal, then you might find it easier to give a handful of food for one rep. I do this all the time; sometimes just give one dry dog biscuit. Sometimes two. Sometimes ten. Sometimes the whole damn meal. The dog should never be able to predict how much they'll be getting.
How Do I Get My Dog To Be Less Reliant on Food To Do What I Say?
Ah yes, a very common problem. The answer lies in methodology and your foundation. Not all rewards-based methods are equal! If you're working in a system that...
- Relies heavily on luring throughout (as opposed to briefly, in the beginning),
- Does not use a marker system
- Does not build focus and engagement as a pre-requisite to skill acquisition
Then you're probably going to face these issues at some point. But don't stress, any competent rewards-based trainer can help. The steps to which often look like...
- Building an 'active', or 'operant' dog through free-shaping
- Teaching a system of markers
- Building focus and engagement; having the dog learn that they need to push their owner to produce rewards (not literally, through their obedience skills) - NOT the other way around.
When Can I Stop Using Treats in Training?
I personally don't ever fade out food rewards in training my personal dogs. It's not that hard to shove a handful of kibble in my pocket when I take them out for a run in the morning. And the honest truth is I don't advise people ever fade them out either.
What we do instead, is reward the dog for their compliance by sometimes 'paying' with food, or by letting them do what they want to do. Some nice leash walking, for example, can be rewarded by letting the dog sniff and pee on bushes. A solid down-stay can be rewarded with freedom. Does your dog love other dogs? Well them walking at heel, sitting when asked, or doing any other skill can be rewarded with play.
What If My Dog Still Isn't Crazy About Food?
It happens. I generally recommend owners follow a working-for-every-calorie training regime for 2-weeks before looking into other options. It may be that the dog can have new skills taught through food usage at home, but we need to think outside the box when we go elsewhere. Most decent trainers have a variety of other rewards-based or compulsion-based methodologies that can be applied in the absence of decent food drive.