Training dogs with food

Training dogs with food has got to be one of the most misunderstood concepts.

  • There are those that state that any and every dog can be trained using only food.
  • There are those that believe that any behaviour can be modified using food only.
  • There are those that state that using food is just bribery.
  • There are those that say if you use food the dog won’t respond unless you have food.
  • There are those that say that their dog will never work for food.

For the record, I don’t agree with any of the above statements…

I think that people over simplify using food or get stuck using food in one way and believe that is the limitation of food, or that you cannot get high levels of motivation with food.

Access to resources

If your dog has unlimited access to food, or any other resource, you will be severely limiting your dogs value for food. This leads to yet another bad idea “starve the dog and he or she will work for food”.

Well, you will likely only slow the metabolism and end up with a dog that doesn’t need much food.

I see many people prepare a food bowl for their dogs and their dogs get super excited, run to where they get fed, sit and wait for the cue to go eat.

This is often their dog’s highest level of motivation the owner ever see’s. It’s the most responsive, engaged and motivated their dog is to come, sit etc.

This was trained with just one repetition per day. One food bowl per day, maybe two…

Imagine taking even half that food and delivering it through 50 or 100 reps a day…

Eating is training!!!

I think one of the most important aspects of training a dog is to hand feed your dog at least 50% of his or her food. Whilst some gains in engagement, trust and relationship may be gained by just picking food up and giving it to your dog, I am not talking about that when I say “hand feed”.

I am talking about, weighing out the dogs food and putting a few equal amounts into say, separate snap lock bags. These will equal 50% of the total food the dog gets per day. So there is still some food being delivered by the food bowl.

Every time you are going to train or interact with your dog, load a bag into your treat pouch and away you go.

At the start food rewards are delivered for very little input by the dog, “I am just creating an expectation of reward”.

Over the coming week or so, your dogs metabolism shifts gears and starts to “expect” food at various times of the day, in small amounts, for doing something, with you.

Now the “cost” goes up a little, and the ratio of win lose goes from 100% to maybe 70% win. Now because you have created an “expectation of reward” this takes advantage of Negative Punishment.

Negative Punishment is a quadrant of Operant Conditioning that means withholding an expected reward (basically).

Now your dog is: –

  • Working between win and loss
  • Expecting a reward
  • Expecting to work
  • Has a metabolic expectation of “I’m hungry every hour”

It is only now can you even think about measuring your dogs food drive and consider adding any distraction to your training sessions.

This sounds easy, but when you portion your dogs food into pieces and portions and you start needing to find “X” amount of good behaviours to reward, it can take a little more effort than you may think.

But trust me, persist anyway.

These changes are likely to be making the difference: –

  • Your increased effort
  • More training to get the right behaviours to reward
  • Rewarding only the desirable behaviours
  • Your dogs increased metabolic rate
  • Your dogs increased value for food
  • Your dogs expectation of reward
  • Your dogs avoidance of behaviours that lose reward

Combined can be a game changer.

People who find this “too hard” always find training too hard, results hard to get and talk about their stubborn dog.

Training with food alone may not get you everything with every dog, but if you get everything you can out of the food, you wont need as much if any of anything else.

Is food your dogs priority?

I am lucky enough to work with a lot of German Shepherds, now many come in and their owners will tell me “The dog has zero interest in food”.

So, this is what I see: –

They show their dog a distraction, let’s say their dog is dog aggressive. Their dog triggers into aggression or is just about to and they show the dog some food and sort of ask “wouldn’t you rather have food than bark at that dog?

Well, in that situation, it’s unlikely the dog will say yes, but that doesn’t mean they are not motivated by food, they are just more motivated by the dog at that moment in time.

I will remove the other dog and begin rewarding the dog with food when there are no distractions, remember, I build the expectation of reward first.

At some stage I can ask the dog to do a food reinforced exercise such as sit, as another dog walks into the room, and to get the food, the dog NOW sits.

Food has become a priority and an expectation to that dog.

Delivery system

Do you know that the “way” I deliver the food can have an extreme effect on the energy and commitment the dog puts into getting it?

Playing games with food vs placing food between a dogs paws on a place bed can help you either get, high levels of drive or long sessions of relaxation, and it has nothing to do with the “flavour” of the food.

Luring and shaping

If I lure a dog to a location and reward, I find the dog following food and finding an open hand in a location. Enough repetitions will increase the likeliness that dogs goes to that location. But if I shape the behaviour, then mark and release the dog, it can reduce the number of repetitions it takes to teach this by 95%!!!

In my training in drive system, I can put the reward expectation, win loss aspect, better delivery system all into my Training in drive Framework and develop a super performing dog.

The levels of energy, commitment, speed, and reliability these dogs put into their work can be incredible even when some of them started with what the owner described as “not interested in food at all”.

Simply showing a dog food, luring a sit and giving the dog a piece of food is as basic as basic can get.

None of my programs are that basic. As a professional I am going to teach clients how professionals get the results we get.

There are many dogs, especially the dogs that come to us for rehab, very seriously aggressive dogs, very dangerous and powerful dogs, that offering food is not a first step.

We have dogs that if you offer handful of food, they will maul your hand or if muzzled, break your fingers trying to.

But all of the dogs we rehab go through these steps so we can utilise food in their training and relationships to help reinforce the better behaviours we teach.

Here is another great article you might enjoy (click here)

If you want to see big changes, make big changes.

Why not give it a go, run this for just 40 days and measure the results!

Click here to download the program FREE!

Take a look at the video below of some clients playing these games.


About SteveK9Pro

Steve Courtney is a Nationally Accredited Canine Behaviour Specialist, Obedience Trainer, Law Enforcement Dog Trainer and ANKC Breeder. Steve has been training dogs all his life and in these articles he shares with you his experience...

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