Updated: Oct 28, 2019
There's an unheard of debate out there amongst dog trainers and behavior consultants in regard to the use of food for dog obedience training and behavior modification. Some trainers stay away from food entirely, believing that dogs will care more for the food than themselves, while others overdo it by relying too heavily on it, thus creating dependency and a bad rep for using food. You may have heard conflicting advice on this subject, so I am here to clear things up.
For starters, every animal has a natural, primal instinct to consume food in order to survive. Dogs, like all other animals on earth, are genetically pre-programmed to desire food and are willing to work for it, because, well, they have to. Unlike humans, dogs do not have the luxury of grocery stores and supermarkets where they can just stop in and get top quality food. They must stalk, hunt, chase, catch, kill, and consume their fleeing prey to fill their hungry bellies. But, now that dogs coexist with humans and have become an integral part of the family, they too have immediate access to an abundance of food.
So now your dog needs to be trained, and you've read somewhere that you shouldn't use food, or maybe you've been told never to use food because you'd be bribing your dog and they won't listen without it.
Ah, misinformation at its finest.
I'm going to be honest; you don't actually NEED food to train a dog. Plenty of dogs have been taught without the use of food. But there are a few things to consider here. First, most of the dogs trained without food are military or police dogs. They are trained by professionals that used toys/play and the dog's natural prey drive as well as punishment for motivation. Dogs trained by inexperienced dog trainers without the use of food may be less fortunate. These dogs were most likely forced to do what they were told during training or faced severe physical punishment for noncompliance.
So is your dog is training for protection work, military use, or police use? Probably not. So why not use a tool (that's what food is in training) that your dog will get anyway and teach them something in the process? It's a win-win for both of you. While they learn what you teach them, they earn their daily portion of food. I call it "learn to earn." To be clear, I am talking about obedience training specifically. Food can be beneficial to use with behavior modification, but it depends on the dog and the problem.
What about treats? I'm not a fan of using treats, personally. I prefer using the dog's food, and here's why; treats are very high in calories and too many will create gastrointestinal issues. Plus, treats are like junk food for dogs; they may not want their regular food if given too many. For me, treats are a last resort food option for training. I'd go with boiled, roasted or rotisserie chicken, hot dogs or steak before store-bought treats. A great option for raw fed dogs as well. It's cheaper and has less processed junk. Real food is always better than processed.
The benefits of using food for training are simple.
1. Food is a motivator. It may not be the only motivator, but for the majority of dogs, it is the strongest.
2. It helps create a stronger bond between you and your dog.
3. It speeds up the learning process during training.
4. It makes training more desirable for the food-motivated dog.
5. It helps create positive associations that help fearful dogs overcome timidity and shyness.
Okay, but what about weening the dog off of food? Will you always have to keep food on you? Will your dog even listen without food?
No, you won't need food forever, and your dog CAN listen without the promise of food. BUT, you have to be willing to correct your dog, and there is no getting around this if you want your dog to listen to you consistently. There are going to be times when your dog would much rather do something else instead of coming to you for food, or even treats. If you're not willing to give a meaningful correction when your dog blows you off, your dog will blow you off more and more. Food is a training tool, not a miracle worker.
For the record, a dog that only listens when there is food involved has officially trained their human. Sorry folks, but it's true. And there is a difference between bribing a dog and rewarding a dog. Shaking the treat bag to get them to come to you is a bribe. Pulling a treat out of your pocket after they come to you is a reward.
The bottom line is this; Food is a great training tool to reward your dog for doing the things you want them to do and making positive associations in behavior modification. It speeds up the learning process and makes training more appealing and enjoyable for the dog. Food can be a strong motivator for most dogs, but not every dog will give a crap about food in some situations, and that's okay. Corrections/punishment are essential to give your dog additional feedback about what you won't allow and what not to do. Unless your dog is training for the military, protection work, or hates food, use food.
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