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Tricks For Treats: Training Your Dog With Food

Food is a powerful motivator for dogs — which is why it can often be very effective for obedience training.

You are asking your dog to complete what may be a complicated task for her — understand a verbal or visual cue and then perform a desired behavior. This may seem straightforward and simple to you, but dogs don’t communicate this way in nature. By harnessing the power of something that is very primal to them — food — you can make learning the task much easier for them.

Here are a few tips for how to approach food-oriented obedience training:

Use small treats
It’s easy to overdo it with treats, particularly while you are training. Help ensure your dog maintains his weight by using small treats or even pieces of treats.

Reward a calm-submissive state
Remember, you are reinforcing whatever behavior preceded the treat, so don’t unintentionally reward hyperactive behavior. Wait until your dog is in the right frame of mind to give it.

Don’t bribe your dog
Here’s the situation you want to avoid. Your dog learns how to do a command… but he’ll only do it when he knows there’s a treat waiting for him at the end of it. Treats are great for initially getting your dog’s attention, but eventually you should rely on them less and less. Instead, share reinforcement by giving your attention or affection.

Reward each step towards the desired behavior
Many people make the mistake of trying to get their dog to perform the entire task before giving the treat… and become frustrated when it doesn’t work. Instead, you want to reward progress — no matter how small — towards the ultimate goal. Often in the beginning, that progress is accidental on the part of your dog.

For instance, maybe you are trying to train your dog to sit, and he lowers his butt just a little. Give him a treat. When he does it again, give the treat again. Eventually he’ll figure out what the treat is connected to. Then you can wait to reward him until he gets his rear even closer to the ground… until finally he’s sitting for it.

“Fade the lure”
This technique helps to avoid the treat becoming a bribe. You’ll use the treat a few times to entice the dog to do what you want, such as lower his head to the ground or coming towards you. Then use the same gesture but keep you hand empty.

When he completes the task, give him verbal encouragement, “Yes.” Then give him the treat with the other hand or a nearby surface, such as the floor. Eventually, you’ll want to only randomly provide the treat, and then stop using the treats entirely.

Give the food where you’d like your dog to be. Remember, the behavior that precedes the treat is reinforced, and that includes your dog’s position. If you want to reward your dog for lying down, then only give it to your dog lying down (or taking an incremental step towards lying down) — not after she pops up excitedly.

Remove distractions
Having trouble getting your dog to pay attention to the food? It may be because there’s something more interesting in the environment, such as whirring cars, scurrying squirrels, or playing children. Find a place where your dog’s focus will be on you and that tasty treat.

Try different treats
Another common problem with food-oriented obedience training is your dog’s taste. It’s possible the treat you’re using simply isn’t delicious enough to be exciting and motivate the behavior you desire. Test out different healthy dog treats until you find one that gets your dog’s attention.

Consider clicker training
You can also combine giving the treat with the sound that a clicker makes. Your dog will associate that sound with a reward, and eventually it will take the place of the treat.

Of course, some dogs are more food-oriented than others. If food doesn’t capture your dog’s attention, toys and your affection may work instead. For those who do have a big appetite for a tasty treat, always opt for a healthy reward.

What’s your reward of choice for obedience training?.

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