Food can be a very powerful motivator in dog training, but it isn't always used properly, which can cause setbacks, or worse, a dog that only responds to training when there is food present. There are three main times when we reward our dogs, but owners can easily get these confused. These are luring, bribing, and rewarding.
Let's start with rewarding. Rewarding is when we give dogs something to motivate them to do the behavior in the future. In scientific terms, this would be considered positive reinforcement: something being added to increase the likelihood of the desired behavior occurring again. Rewards come in many forms, but food, particularly, isn’t always helpful in every stage of training. Rewards should be given immediately after a desired behavior is performed, not before, not more than 5 seconds after.
Luring is what we do when we are initially teaching a behavior. For example, when teaching a dog to “sit” you might hold a treat in your hands over the dog's head while putting pressure on their bottom. The way you position the treat helps the dog get into position and then they get rewarded (the treat) when they do it. After a behavior is understood, luring should discontinue pretty quickly to make sure that the dog will do the behavior whether or not the food is present.
Bribing is holding a treat in front of your dog to get them to do a behavior. This could be similar to luring, but it becomes bribing after the behavior is already shaped, i.e. your dog already knows how to sit. If your dog will not sit when you ask, unless there is a piece of bacon in your hand, you are bribing your dog. Calling your dog over to you by screaming “want a treat?!” at the top of your lungs also falls into this category.
To get your dog to realize that commands are non-negotiable, regardless of the presence of food, it is important to start phasing out food as quickly as possible. Studies show that rewards schedules should be random, not a treat every time, not even every three times something is done when asked, but completely random. This will keep your dog guessing, knowing that there is always a possibility to get a reward, but that they have to work for it each time to keep that possibility on the table.
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