When food use goes wrong, or why reward-based training does not always work.

Feb 17, 2017 |

Reward that we so religiously offer our trainees does not necessarily carry some value.

It usually does, but only when the dog behaves in an attentive and sensitive manner and asks for  permission or instruction to pull away. If a dog willingly follows and independently makes a decision to maintain contact, it values the outcomes of that behaviour. Reward takes place. What happens otherwise – a dog ACCEPTS a treat. Completely different to the ideas of our handfeeding technique.

Example: A dog continues to follow & succeeds in getting positive feedback every now and then (often – when performing the best act out of the whole repertoire offered). Good illustration of a proper use of reward. Alternatively, dog keeps looking away, sniffs around, pulls on lead. Owner keeps luring, enticing the dog with titbits, calling it’s name and pleading to come back to heel – don’t we all see this picture a bit far too often? Food gets eaten, but does not become a reward.

It is not the number of skills that matters when it comes to training your dog, it is the attitude it gives you and each particular exercise, as well as willingness to follow and discover the best behaviour leading to the reward on offer in the shortest time.

Food use is exciting, as together with the actual nutrient and resource, the successful student also gets plenty of mental stimulation based on natural, unconditioned instincts, together with a sense of success, resulting in subsequent release of endorphins into the blood stream, and therefore sending a strong surge of positive emotions that eventually is likely to be associated with the behaviour itself, and not with the fact or time of a treat’s delivery. In other words, if used correctly, your dog will be getting used to enjoy the challenge, instruction, and an opportunity to follow the command.

Think of the dog’s language when they are working hard on achieving something. Firstly, they position themselves in front of us, or in the required position, close enough, making direct uninterrupted eye contact and stare. Eyes are sweet, begging, not demanding. Ears are pinned back, head brought up, to be level with the line of vision. Mouth slightly open, with some wrinkles in the corners. Tongue is out, breathing in heightened. Body is loose, not tense, tail is relaxed, the whole body tells you that the dog is attentive and is all yours. Isn’t this the picture we all want to see when working (or walking) our dogs? Do you often see this when feeding your dog a treat?


When things go well, on the other hand, you may consider varying the use of rewards, and there are so many different things you can keep in mind when considering, or expanding, the use of food rewards.

1 – Just give him a treat. Plain and simple, and prone to work.

2 – Vary those stimulants, switch between lower and higher value treats.

3 – Reduce allowance, so that the dog appreciates the reward more.

4 – Offer to perform an easy or favourite trick of behaviour first – many dogs just love to be asked to, say, roll over.

5 – Toss the treat towards the dog, or up in the air – engage Catching instincts, natural for any animal.

6 – Throw a treat away from a dog encouraging a chase – another strong instinctive thread.

7 – Ask the dog to wait a second, and then allow it to go and get the treat – permission will also work as additional stimulus.

8 – Never use rewards to avert dog’s fading attention.

9 – Later on in your training have no food in your hand, but still reward immediately – hand deep in a pocket or pouch works as an additional conditioned reward.

10 – Hide a pouch or treat bag, or even food on its’ own – searching instinct is strong in many dogs, and finding is such a huge release of those positive feelings.

11 – Place a treat somewhere when your dog is not watching, and then call them to show what you have found – they are likely to be amazed how good you are in this game and trust your recall more.

12 – Please practice the following rule: “Extras for Excellence”

13 – Being predictable in delivering stimulants will work against you.

Make sure, that we educate our dogs that “It pays to pay attention”. And one more thing – when our dogs get older, we often cease to acknowledge their natural spontaneous obedience. Instead we use words and signals as we think that the dog is old enough to understand English. We highly recommend: continue being bilingual. What speaks better for the dogs is what they do not have to think about. Dogs mature, and their jobs get harder, distractions intensify and various complications make their jobs so much harder. So pay them more, and better – after all, it’s so rewarding for us to just give our dogs a well deserved treat.

And now, try to do a list of non-food rewards that we can all use to add to the excitement of working with humans. It should become a long list!

Dima Yeremenko

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