Dogs don’t follow commands to make us happy. There’s usually a benefit for them. If their action leads to good things, they’re likely to repeat it. If it doesn’t, they’re less likely to. It’s as simple as that.
While we tell ourselves it's out of love for us, arguably, the most incentivizing reward for our pups is food. However, using tasty treats as rewards can give pet parents more leverage, it can backfire if not approached properly.
There are a few common pitfalls when using food to reward and train good behavior.
Pitfall #1: Unintentionally Reinforcing the Wrong Behavior
It’s a slippery slope, and pups are more clever than we sometimes give them credit for. More often than not, it’s our pups who are training us. Let’s face it, they’re less distracted than we are and can maintain single-pointed focus on achieving their goal.
They watch and quickly learn which behaviors get them what they want and which ones don’t. And they have all the time in the world to devote to achieving victory. If we aren’t paying attention, we won’t realize when we’re rewarding and even creating bad habits with our dogs.
This gets extra tricky when our pups begin to associate something they really, really want, like food, with a behavior. Let’s say we want Fido to stay off of the couch. It’s not uncommon for the scenario to unfold something like this:
- Fido jumps on the couch.
- We command Fido to get off the couch.
- Fido gets off the couch.
- We immediately reward Fido with a treat and some affection
In our mind, we just rewarded good behavior—our pup listened to the command and followed orders.
In Fido’s mind, jumping on the couch (or more specifically off the couch) leads to a treat. In order to receive a treat for jumping off the couch, hopping on it must happen first. Now, the pup will hop on and off the couch to get a treat, which is their ultimate goal.
Keeping Fido off the couch will become increasingly more difficult now that the behavior is associated with food.
One of the best pieces of advice when it comes to rewarding with treats or food of any kind is proper timing. Allowing time to lapse between the bad behavior and food-based reward is essential. You want to be certain your pup is associating the action you want with the treat. Sometimes you will have to reward good behavior even if it follows bad behavior, but the key ingredient is rewarding that good behavior at the right time so that it has zero association with the unwanted behavior. Otherwise, you’ll create a much larger problem for yourself.
When you understand what is motivating your pup, you’ll be able to identify the most strategic times to offer treats as rewards (and when not to). Food is the best incentive and the most effective when used wisely.
Pitfall #2: Using Food as Bribery
Treats should only be used after your dog has successfully followed your command—it should serve as reinforcement.
All too often, we give our pup a treat when they aren’t following a request in the hopes that it will inspire them into action. This is bribery, and it won’t achieve the results you hope for. It will train your dog to follow commands only when food is involved.
Keep treats hidden and only show them after your dog has successfully followed the command or cue.
If you must use a treat to grab their attention, allow them to see it, and then quickly hide it. Now you can continue with the command without offering the treat so that there is no longer the association.
Treats are great incentives during the beginning stages of training but don’t rely on them for too long. Once your pup is following your cues ninety percent of the time, you can offer them less frequently and at random.
Reinforcement helps to shape long-term, good behavior. Bribery is short-term at best.
Pitfall #3: Offering Treats Too Often
Overuse of treats can set up a situation where your dog will only obey if they know you have some treats. You’ve lost authority.
Not only that, but food will lose some of its appeal if you use it too often. It should remain a special incentive and not the expected payoff for following commands.
Lastly, if you’re overzealous with treat-giving, your pup will likely pack on some pounds—store-bought treats tend to be high in calories. It’s best to keep treats below 10 percent of your pup’s daily calorie intake to keep unwanted pounds from sneaking up. If they’ve had extra treats during the day, just cut back their meal a bit. While a chubby puppy may be cute, excess weight is hard on their overall health and can contribute to even bigger health issues down the road.
Pitfall #4: Beware of the Unintentional Food Reward
If your pup is barking for their meal or cleverly waking you up in the morning by jangling their collar or breathing loudly near your ear, and you respond by hopping up and filling their bowl, they will perceive meals as rewards for their behavior.
Maybe it seems cute at first, but expect their request to become more insistent.
If you don’t want to be awakened at your pups whim or encourage barking for meals, then you’ll want to avoid this trap.
Feeding time should be on your schedule and not be interpreted as a treat.
A Few Tips for Using Food as Reward
Using treats is the best way to guarantee your dog will repeat the behavior you want, but knowing when and when not to dole them out, will make food a more effective tool.
With a New Puppy: Praise and the promise of a walk or playtime aren't clear enough incentive for puppies. They need something they can see and smell like treats. Once you’ve built up a relationship in training, you can rely on other forms of reward.
Lure and Reward: When you need to grab your pups attention amidst other distractions, you can allow them to see the treat or even smell it through a closed fist and then quickly remove it. Keep it hidden until they successfully complete the command. Combining the treat with a clicker or verbal praise will add an additional, positive association to your command. Your dog will begin to link your praise and the clicker to the potential of receiving treats. Now you can transition to offering treats randomly.
Ongoing: Don’t completely stop using food as a reward. Your dog’s interest in following your cues and commands will fade away if they believe there’s nothing in it for them!
Intermittently and Unpredictably: Be sure to switch out rewards with affection and praise, going for a walk, giving a good scratch, or throwing their favorite toy. These are all excellent rewards that your pup will respond to as you phase out the frequency of food-based rewards. They will also serve to strengthen the bond between you more than treats ever will.
Tips for Selecting the Best Food-Based Reward
Every dog is different, so you’ll want to test run a few different treats to find ones that your dog gets excited about. Here are a few tips to knowing what to look for.
Small and Easily Eaten: For training purposes, you want the treats to be small (pea size) and easily swallowed so that gulp them down doesn’t pause the training. You want to keep your dog’s concentration on you, not lose them to a piece of rawhide. And small treats allow you to give your pup more, and frequently, which is a bigger incentive.
Healthy Low Calorie Treats: Check to see how many calories are in the treats. If you're feeding lots of treats, be sure to cut back on the amount of main meal, otherwise your dog may be at risk of overeating. Ty looking for puffed or functional benefit treats (ones with nutritious coatings) are not only lower in calories, but also provide a health benefit.
High and Low Value Treats: While all the treats should be tasty to your pup, you’ll want to have some extra special treats on hand—ones they won’t receive as often. It’s your extra-firepower when your dog is losing interest, or you want to acknowledge their exceptional behavior.
Different Treats for Different Locations: A piece of kibble may be enough to motivate them at home, but if you are competing against the sights, sounds, and smells of the park you might need to pull out the big guns. A piece of dried liver or bacon will get your dog’s attention.
Don’t be afraid to experiment; some dogs have unexpected preferences like a slice of fruit over meat.
Some dogs respond well to praise; others will follow direction for a chance to play. Almost all dogs respond to treats, food, and anything yummy. While food is the most effective reward for a job well done, it’s best when mixed with a healthy mix of praise, play, and affection.