Canines respond to food treats better than nearly any other type of reward. This is the reason most professional trainers recommend using them when training your dog at home. By rewarding him with a small piece of his favorite food after he complies with your command, you’ll improve the likelihood he’ll comply in the future. But is this an effective training method over the long run?
A lot of owners are reluctant to use food-based rewards while training their dogs. Some feel doing so will create a dependency on such rewards. That is, without offering a treat, they fear their canine will be less willing to comply. Others feel the bits of food are nothing more than a bribe, and do little to foster loyalty and respect for their authority.
In this article, we’ll explore this issue by first examining why food-based rewards work toward encouraging compliance from your canine. We’ll then take a look at reasons they might frustrate your long-term training goals. Lastly, we’ll cover some common mistakes owners make that you should avoid.
Understanding Why Dog Treats Work
Food rewards work for several reasons. They are easy to carry in your pocket; they can be given to your pooch immediately to reinforce desired behaviors; and they can be consumed quickly, so you can recapture your dog’s attention.
Another advantage of using treats is that they can be provided over and over without a delay. This is valuable if you’re trying to reinforce a particular behavior, but want to avoid the delays inherent with other types of rewards (e.g. playing fetch).
It’s important to understand how your canine perceives the rewards. When you provide them, you are sending a clear message that you are pleased with whatever he did a moment ago. He may require a few successful attempts to make a solid connection between his action and receiving the treat, but once he does, he’s unlikely to forget. More than merely training, this is conditioning. You are essentially using positive association to program his mind to respond in the way you desire.
Reasons Treats May Obstruct Training Goals
So, why might treats hamper your long-term training goals? As many owners fear, the rewards may be perceived as a bribe. Once the bribe is removed, so too, is your canine’s willingness to comply. But the problem is not with the rewards; it is with the manner in which they are presented. This is a critical distinction.
Often, owners will present treats as bait to encourage their dog to comply with their commands. For example, they will show the reward to their canine; they’ll position it next to their dog’s nose; they’ll hold it out so it can be clearly seen. In this case, owners are correct. The treat is little more than a bribe. The solution is to change the method of presentation so the food item is perceived as a reward rather than bait.
Common Mistakes Made While Treat Training
As implied above, the first mistake is to brandish the dog treats. Instead, ensure your canine perceives the food items properly (i.e. as a reward) by keeping them out of his sight.
A second mistake is related to the first. Owners will often hold up food items in plain sight to bait their canines into compliance. In doing so, they unwittingly train them that the treat is the signal to respond. This may ultimately produce the right response, but it does so for the wrong reason.
Third, when treats are used as bait, canines naturally learn they are released from compliance once they receive the treat. Owners unintentionally reinforce this perception by immediately grabbing another piece of food to bait their dog into compliance again. By withholding the reward until a moment after your canine complies, you can discourage him from thinking the reward signals his release.
Dog treats continue to be one of the most effective training tools for encouraging and reinforcing desired behaviors. The key is to use the correct approach when presenting them.