As a professional dog trainer in San Francisco, at least once a week I hear, “My dog isn’t food motivated.” This isn’t really true, of course, because dogs that don’t eat die. I’m not saying that food is the only reward that dogs can/should work for, but it’s one that reward-based trainers use because it is instinctually connected with survival and therefore trumps most other rewards, if used correctly. If you find yourself saying that your dog is not food motivated, you have probably been going about it the wrong way.
Working dogs are bred, selected, and trained for jobs like searching, patrolling, herding, or protecting. Dogs at the top levels of sports competition often work for rewards like access and toys. In these situations, though, the dogs and humans work daily as a team. Companion dogs, newly adopted dogs, and puppies need more consistent and immediately gratifying rewards.
If you are under the illusion that your dog works for praise, you are wrong; at some point during your dog’s day, you feed him or her. This is technically a poorly timed jackpot-reward. So, if you have a moderately well-behaved and biddable dog, why not add some food rewards into the picture and get a rock-star?
I was recently moved to shed a joyful tear watching a video clip of “Ashleigh & Pudsey” on Britain’s Got Talent. I assure you those two have a bond and Pudsey probably does, at this point in his career, work for praise some of the time, but you can have my left little toe if Ashleigh never used food in her training.
The cold, hard bottom line is that you can only change your dog’s behavior in two ways. You can reward things you like or punish things you don’t like. It’s a lot easier and faster to reward a dog when they get things right than it is to punish all the many ways they get what you want wrong.
Too many punishments and any dog will just shut down and stop trying. This is especially true with shy, fearful, or newly adopted dogs.
Here are some ideas you can use to effectively incorporate rewards into your training sessions at home.
Tips for Rewarding Your Dog
Don’t ask for too much. You want to start with something your dog can get right 90% of the time. Think about grading on a curve. If your puppy isn’t walking next to you in heel position, try imagining a 3-foot circle on your left. Anytime the puppy is in this space you will reward. Ignore your dog or change direction when his body leaves the imaginary bubble.
Be Clear. The biggest mistake new dog owners make when using food rewards is not marking the moment when the dog gets something right. Professional trainers use clickers to mark the exact moment the dog has completed the task. You can get a clicker, or choose a marker word, like “Yes!” First mark/praise the dog, then worry about getting/giving the reward.
Don’t Bribe. Using a food-lure is a valuable part of training, but you need to phase it out. Once your dog is responding to verbal commands make sure that you keep the treats away from your hands until after you give the command. You also need to mark the behavior as correct – “Yes!” – before you reach for the reward.
Don’t Be Cheap. Think big and tip your dogs well. If you really need them to do something and there are competing motivators (e.g., you are calling your dog away from other dogs who are playing at the beach), you need to be willing to dole out really good rewards. I like real meat. Chunks of chicken or steak are exciting enough to compete with most distractions.
Get Help. If you still can’t get your dog’s attention and she is barking, avoiding you, or unable to comply with simple commands she has been taught, your dog is likely fearful or fear-aggressive. Get professional help. Fear complicates the whole game!
Kelley Filson is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and a Partner in DogEvolve, a San Francisco dog training company offering classes and private training. Contact her at Kelley@DogEvolve.com or 415-857-5959.