Any dog owner who has worked with a trainer - or read anything about training - is probably familiar with the concept of using food reinforcement. Food reinforcement is a powerful way to get and maintain the behaviors we want from our dogs but there is an art and a science to using it properly.
If you’ve tried using food in training and thought “This just doesn’t work!” make sure you aren’t falling into one of these common traps:
1. Your treats are too low value. Dogs are individuals, just like people, and what one dog values, another dog may not care for. Some dogs go nuts for a dry biscuit while others turn up their noses at anything that isn’t real meat or cheese. The environment may also influence what treats work best to motivate your dog. Generally speaking, a higher distraction environment means you need to use higher value food treats. A dog may work for his kibble at home, but on a walk with full of exciting smells, sights, and sounds, kibble probably won't be enticing enough. I once had a student who insisted that her Golden Retriever loved blueberries above everything else. She showed up to class with a carton of blueberries, and the Golden dutifully took one or two - until noticing that the student next to them was handing out bacon bits! Suddenly, the blueberries weren’t that exciting. Use the highest value treat needed in any situation to keep your dog motivated. We like cheese, hot dogs, cooked meatballs, plain chicken or turkey breast, peanut butter, freeze-dried liver, canned dog food, or anything that’s stinky, squishy, and generally high in fat and protein.
2. Your rate of reinforcement (ROR) is too low. When learning a new task, dogs need lots of feedback on when they’re getting it right (people, too - have you ever learned from someone who didn’t give you any information on how you were doing? It’s SO frustrating!) Frequent food reinforcement helps them understand, in plain terms, that they are on the right path. Think of it as the “colder, warmer” game. Rapid-fire food treats are basically telling the dog “you’re getting warmer!” while the lack of a treat lets them know that what they’re doing isn’t what you’re looking for (although if you’re not setting up your dog to get the answer right most of the time, you may be asking for too much at once - but more on that next.) A sluggish rate of reinforcement tells the dog that the behavior you’re asking for isn’t worth much, so he probably won't offer it often. Depending on the behavior, you may be looking at a ROR of once every couple of seconds in the beginning. Of course, you can stretch that duration as your dog gets better. But it just doesn’t pay to be stingy at first!
3. Your criteria are too high. As mentioned above, your criteria may be too high - meaning your dog may not yet be capable of doing what you’re asking for. Think about how you would teach a toddler to write their name. You wouldn’t sit them down and expect them to spell “Alexander” all at once, would you? You’d practice the “A” first, then the “L,” then the “E,” and so on… praising and cheering them on at each step before going on to the next. Dogs need the same approach. Tasks that involve multiple steps, duration, or distractions need to be broken down into small, achievable components with each one trained to fluency before moving on to the next. It doesn’t matter how awesome your treats are - if your dog isn’t capable of understanding what you want or how to do it, food isn’t going to magically make that happen!
4. Your timing is off. In order for your dog to understand that food is reinforcement for a specific behavior, the behavior and the food must have a consequential relationship. This means that the food has to follow the behavior promptly. If the food appears before, or too long after, the dog performs the desired behavior, the connection won’t be made. Using a marker or bridge can help give you a bit of a buffer - the dog is taught that the marker (a clicker, word, or another signal) means “Great job! Food is coming!” which gives you a few moments to get the food to the dog’s mouth. More info on teaching a marker is here.
5. Your dog is too stressed. We hear this a lot: “I tried to give my fearful dog treats when strangers come over, but she won’t take them. Food doesn’t work!” It’s not that food won’t help with this behavior – more than likely your dog is just too stressed to eat at that moment. Have you ever been stressed about an exam, a work project, speaking in front of a group, a medical diagnosis, or anything else that caused you to feel nauseous and unable to eat? This is a physiological response and we know dogs can experience the same thing. When a stressor is too great, they often refuse to eat. If this is the case either revisit #1 on the list or introduce the stressor at a less intense level so your dog is relaxed enough to accept food.
6. Your dog is full. This sounds obvious, but many of us think of our dogs as bottomless pits who will eat endlessly. While this may *seem* true, in most cases, dogs can and do satiate eventually. Think about a big Thanksgiving dinner - you may LOVE mashed potatoes, and eat them until your stomach hurts, but at some point, you’re going to refuse another helping. Dogs get full, too! To help prevent this, keep your training sessions short (5-15 minutes in the beginning) and use small pieces of food (no larger than your pinky fingernail is sufficient for most dogs; even smaller pieces are effective for tiny dogs.) You can also explore treat options like lick sticks, licks of peanut butter, or your dog’s meal of kibble drizzled with chicken broth to make it more exciting; these alternatives won’t fill them up as quickly.
7. Your dog isn’t motivated by food at that moment. Maybe what your dog REALLY wants to do *right now* is chase a ball. Or play tug. Or cuddle on the couch. Or sniff where a squirrel was. Dogs aren’t machines, and their needs and desires change from moment to moment. Have you ever really wanted to go see a new movie, but your partner or friend suggests a baseball game or a hike instead? You may be perfectly amenable to baseball and hikes most days, but you had your heart set on a dark theater, popcorn, and surround sound. You simply weren’t as motivated by the other activities at that moment. The same can be true with dogs. You know your dog better than anyone, so assess what they are looking for in any given situation - it may not always be food, which means that offering food right then isn’t likely to be as effective.
8. Your dog only performs when the food is visible. Another thing we hear often is that a dog will only respond when they see someone wearing a treat pouch…. or someone with a treat in their hand…. or they notice that the treat package has appeared on the counter. This is actually an error in technique and not a problem inherent in the food itself; the same thing can happen with a tennis ball or a tug toy. If you aren’t careful about making the sight of the food irrelevant, your dog may learn that treats only happen when they can see the treat pouch, food, or package. There are two ways to prevent this. First, have food around often. Wear your treat pouch around the house, leave the bag sitting out (where your dog can’t reach it, of course!) get treats out of the fridge then put them back, and just generally handle the treats without delivering any. Your dog will learn that just because the food is around doesn’t mean he gets some. Second, produce treats for good behavior even when none of the usual visual cues (pouch, food, treat bag) are present. I coach clients to keep small stores of treats in different areas around the house so they can “catch” their dog doing something good and reinforce it seemingly “out of nowhere.” The dog learns that getting food isn’t contingent upon food simply being present - getting food is contingent upon offering the right behavior.
If you’ve “tried everything” and food still doesn’t seem to be working, consider which of these factors may be at play. It could be several in one situation, or you may have different issues across settings. Regardless, being savvier with how food is used in your training can make the difference between stalling out, and really maximizing the amazing power of food reinforcement. Bon appétit!