Today’s episode discusses the 8 problems with using treats in your training sessions. 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.
1. Your treats are too low or too high 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.
- 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.
- On the flip side of that, you can also have treats that are too high value. This can lead to a dog that’s hyper focused on the treats, to the point where he’s practically unable to learn.
- You can also accidentally use extra-high value treats to get a dog to do something that he’s actually not comfortable with, which can end up reducing your dog’s choice and control in the long run.
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.
- Life rewards!
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.
- 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.
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.
- Teaching a clicker!
5. Your dog is too stressed.
- 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.
- 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.)
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.
8. Your dog only performs when the food is visible.
- 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.
Kayla is from Ashland, Wisconsin but lives in Missoula Montana. She holds a degree in biology from Colorado College and has spent years working in zoos, animal shelters, as a private dog trainer, and with working detection K9s. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. She shares her life with her border collie Barley.