If you’ve ever done any positive reinforcement dog training, you know that food plays a big part of the training process. Most dogs are highly motivated by food. They will happily engage in learning new behaviors with the promise of getting a yummy bit of something in exchange. But where the use of food in training gets a bad rap is when we become too reliant on it and get the dog hooked on the presence of food as a condition of performing a behavior on cue. But just as tricky is getting rid of rewards too quickly, at the risk of a behavior falling apart before it is reliable. So what’s a person to do? Perhaps some definitions might be helpful to discern when using food is a training aid, and when it becomes a hindrance. There are differences among lures, rewards and bribes; and it is important to know those differences when training your dog.
What is a Lure?
Lures are the most common method to teach a dog a new behavior. Using a piece of food near the dog’s nose, we coax them into the position of the behavior. I expect most of you have used a lure to teach your dog something. For example, when teaching a dog to Sit, we take that food and hold it very close to the dog’s nose, draw it backward over the dog’s head (still close to his head), so he follows it with his nose. When he’s tilted his head back so far, he’ll have to put his backside on the ground to keep sniffing and licking at the food. When that backside hits the floor, we mark it and give the dog the food. Lures are very popular, because they are usually the quickest way to get the dog to do something basic: Sit, Down, Come, Drop It, etc.
The pitfall is using the lure for too long. It is important to “fade the lure” early on. That means get the food out of your cueing hand as soon as you see your dog reliably performing the behavior (i.e., quickly moving into position) with the lure. And keep the food out of your hands when you cue the behavior. That doesn’t mean you quit rewarding your dog when he successfully performs the behavior. Far from it! You will still need to provide tasty rewards on some basis for a while, in order for that behavior to become reliable. But keep the food out of your hands when you cue the behavior.
What is a Reward?
Rewards are a celebration of your dog’s successful completion of a behavior. They come after your dog has done what you’ve asked him to. For really great achievements, we offer Jackpot rewards – the rapid-fire delivery of several tasty bits of food. Rewards are your dog’s motivation . . . “if I do this, it’s going to work out really great for me!” The delivery of the reward is the fulfillment of the expectation.
We usually use food as the primary reward as the dog is learning, because that is a super-motivator. But your dog values other things in life, which can also be good rewards: play, petting, your attention, walks, etc. So once your dog is reliably performing the behavior without a lure (about 80% of the time), in a variety of environments and with duration, distance and distractions, you can start changing up rewards. Make food rewards intermittent, but start by feeding more frequently and gradually make food less frequent. Rather, offer other rewards; such as praise, petting and play when not using food. And build those behaviors into everyday activities, such as meal time, taking walks, and playing with toys. The behavior you trained will actually be more reliable when your dog stops expecting a food reward every single time he does the behavior you cue.
And that brings us to bribes . . .
What is a Bribe?
While not a technical dog training term, bribes are a very real impediment to making your dog’s behavior reliable on cue. Bribes happen when your dog becomes dependent on seeing the treat as part of the cue. You feel your only option is to get the food out and start luring him again. I hear this all the time from clients. “Sure, he’ll do it when he knows I have treats!” Dependency on bribes usually develops when food stays in hands/in sight too long; and when food rewards have not been made intermittent and alternated with other types of rewards.
Now don’t feel deflated. Even if your dog has started requiring a bribe, you can change his expectations. You will have to use a lure (food visible in cueing hand), cue the behavior, and mark it when he does it; but then deliver a food reward from the other hand to reward him. Repeat this several times, then empty out the cueing hand and reward only from the other hand. You may have to use an empty cue hand intermittently for a while to eliminate his dependence on a lure. But before long, he won’t expect the lure anymore. In the process however, it is important that the reward hand doesn’t become the new lure. Keep the food out of the reward hand until you mark the successful completion of the behavior. Then take a treat from a pocket, treat pouch or counter top and deliver it to your dog. Complete the process by progressively alternating food rewards with other rewards (petting, praise, life rewards) and you’ll be out of the business of bribing your dog to perform the behavior you cue.
If you ever find yourself slipping back into carrying food around in your hands when asking your dog to do a behavior you know he is solid on, your dog will “tell” you. Guess where his eyes will be? Not on yours!
We are committed positive reinforcement trainers, and absolutely use food in our training methods. But we want you to move beyond food lures and rewards as soon as practical, so you don’t have to bribe your dog to do all those behaviors you’ve worked so hard to train.