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Dog Training: Why Use Food Rewards

Updated: May 7

A small white dog lying down sniffing various treats in a pile between its paws

Yes! I primarily use food as a reward when training. There are a number of reasons why I do this which I will go into later. First, it is important to clarify that I use food while teaching dogs a new skill and during the development process. It is not my goal to have to carry around a treat pouch with me for the entire life of my dogs. Nor do I want you to do that! Once your dog is proficient at a skill within "x" criteria, it is important to start phasing out a food reward and replace it with something else the dog finds rewarding, like affection or play.

So, why do I use food when training?

1) Food is very motivating for most dogs. It satisfied a basic biological need which allows you to tap into your dog's natural desire for food and encourage them to respond with desired behaviors. It also can be a great way to determine if your dog is approaching threshold. Even the most food motivated dog can refuse food (or try to remove your fingers when taking it from you) if they are becoming over-aroused. It can be a way to know when you have to back up and make things easier.

2) Food rewards can speed up the learning process. Because food is motivating, once your dog understands that a certain behavior results in a yummy treat, they are more likely to repeat that behavior in the future. Keeping your food rewards small (about the size of a pea for a 50 pound dog) allows you to do a number of repetitions is a short space of time. Associating a behavior with a food reward helps dogs understand what is expected of them more quickly which leads to faster, efficient training.

3) Food rewards allow for more precision in your timing during training. Food can be distributed and consumed quickly. This avoids delays that may confuse your dog and slow down the learning process. Food makes it easier to mark and reinforce a desired behavior quickly, avoiding confusion and frustration in your dog.

4) Food creates a positive association with the training process. When training is enjoyable, your dog is more likely to be happy and eager to train with you. This will speed up the process. You don't want your dog to avoid training!

5) SO much variety and so many uses. You have many options when it comes to food rewards for your dog. The "hard" part is to find what THEY find rewarding so that what you use is effective. Food rewards can be used to teach very basic skills as well as more complex behaviors. They can be adjusted in size and value to match your dog's preferences and needs as well as the difficulty of the task you are asking them to do.

6) By using food rewards, you become a source of positive experiences for your dog and establish yourself as a trusted, safe, rewarding part of your dog's life.

Remember: food rewards are for teaching and developing proficiency. Once your dog is able to successfully do the skill when you ask, start pulling back on the food rewards and do something else that your dog enjoys instead. I like to see a 90% success rate at a given criteria before I start phasing out food rewards.

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