The Joy of Training With Food

Thank you to Debbie Jacobs, who pointed out that many training videos do not include the moment the trainer feeds her dog, and that we need to see that. 

Training your dog with food is not only effective. It’s also fun. Do it for a while and your dog may start preferring his training sessions to his meals, even if it’s the same food. You will learn things too, and will enjoy seeing your dog get enthusiastic and attentive.

People who are new to it can profit from seeing what training with food looks like, so I’ve put together a video. I am most definitely an amateur, but I don’t mind showing my imperfect training. I’m not trying to model the perfect use of food delivery–I don’t have that level of skill. But I can give people an idea of what a high rate of reinforcement looks like and let them see what a good time the dogs are having. Hopefully, it will help people who are newer to the game than I am.

It seems to be human nature to be a little cheap with the food at first, so this is another reason for the video. I’m showing high rates of reinforcement in the clips. Most people are surprised at first by how much food we use. But if you are going to do it, do it right. Using a high rate of reinforcement makes it fun, helps keep your dog’s interest, and builds a strong behavior.

Some people talk like using food and building a good relationship are mutually exclusive. But the opposite is true. Have you ever heard a new mom say, “I don’t want to nurse my baby because I don’t want her to associate me with food and comfort. I want her to love me for me!”? Has your grandmother ever said, “I was going to make you some cookies but I didn’t want that to get in the way of our relationship”? Being the magical source of all sorts of good food for your dogs doesn’t hurt your relationship at all. Likewise, your dog’s being a source of comfort when the human world is harsh for you doesn’t cheapen your love for her.

I know, I know. The analogies with the new mom and grandmother are flawed. Those are classical associations and in the case of our dogs, we are talking about training with food. Making food contingent on behavior. Please give me a pass on that for now; I’ll address it in a future post. Besides, the net effect of using lots of food gets you the classical association anyway.

Why Train at All?

Poster: "Don't let anyone tell you that working on good mechanical skills is making yoerself (or your dog) into a robot. Working up good mechanical skills is an act of love.When I first started training my dog (Summer was the first) it was because of behavior problems. Then I found out we both enjoyed it. So we kept on. My next purpose for training was to compete. We competed and titled in obedience, rally obedience, and our favorite, agility.

Zani needed minimal training to fit into my household. She is the proverbial “easy” dog. But she turned out to be a natural agility dog so we did a lot of that. Clara did need training to fit into the household, and even more help to be comfortable in the world.

Today, with my dogs at ages 11, 8, and 5, we don’t have any big problems getting along at home. I’ve trained them alternative behaviors to things that just don’t work well in human environments. Things like peeing on any available absorbent surface, chewing anything attractive, and hurling themselves at me. In turn, they’ve taught me their preferences and the way they like to do things.

What’s the main reason we train now? Because it enriches my dogs’ lives and it’s fun for all of us. Training with food and working together to problem-solve help create a great bond, and it’s a game the dogs can never lose. We all learn so much! I train things like tricks, agility behaviors, and safety behaviors. For instance, right now I am working on everyone’s “down at a distance” using a hand signal. Oh, and handling! Any money I can put in that particular bank means less stressful vet visits for my dear girls.

What Training with Food Looks Like

I compiled a short video that comprises six clips where I am training with food. A lot of food. Each behavior gets at least one treat. Sometimes I use a second behavior (such as a hand target) as a release and I treat for that too. In some cases when I am capturing a behavior for the first time, or working a little duration, I am giving multiple, “rapid-fired” treats. So in that case, one behavior gets many treats!

You will see me both tossing treats to “re-set” the dog for the next behavior and treating in position. Almost all the videos are “headless trainer” vids, but that’s OK with me. I want you to be able to see the dog performing behaviors and eating.

By the way, I am using kibble in most of the clips, but if you are new to this, you should definitely use something more exciting. Be generous. My dogs will work happily for kibble now because over years they have come to love the games. And they don’t always get kibble. They also get things like chicken breast, roast, moist dog food roll, canned cat food, dehydrated raw food, and other exciting stuff.

A small black and tan dog is delicately accepting a treat from a woman's hand while training with food.

I appreciate Zani’s gentleness when I hand her a treat!

The behaviors in the movie are, in order:

  • Zani crossing her paws in response to a hand signal cue. On the latter reps, I am giving her multiple treats while she stays in position.
  • Clara working on one of her rehabilitation exercises for hind end strength. In the video, I am feeding in position. I’m giving lots of treats because she is doing duration and this is a hard behavior. After this session, I started treating after the behavior, since it’s a bit awkward for her to eat when she is stretched up vertically.
  • Summer doing a nose-to-hand target. This was after I had cleaned up the results of sloppy training on my part. My rate of reinforcement in these clips was 27 reps per minute. (Not all repetitions are shown.) That’s 27 cues, 27 behaviors, and 27 food reinforcers per minute. Pretty good for me. I’m not usually that fast, and of course, there are tons of variables. (One thing speeding things up is that Summer rarely chews small pieces of food!) If you’d like to see an exercise for rate of reinforcement and speedy treat delivery, check out this video from Yvette Van Veen. 
  • An old video of Zani drilling what I call “Level One Breakfast” from Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. In this case, we were practicing sits, downs, and hand targets.
  • Summer filing down her front toenails on a scratch board. If you want to learn about this and other ways to make nail trimming a pleasant experience for your dog, visit the Facebook group Nail Maintenance for Dogs.
  • Clara’s very first try at “two on, two off” agility behavior on an elevated board. (Note: many people teach this with a nose target on the ground but I don’t include that. I don’t plan to do agility with her and was just experimenting. ) When she gets in the correct position, I don’t mark, but just start feeding, feeding, and feeding in position.

Link to my video for email subscribers.

The one thing missing from the above video is a magnitude reinforcer: a large extended reinforcement period. That’s a great consequence for something the dog put real effort into. I do them mainly after agility runs, or when my dogs do something unexpectedly impressive in real life. That happened just the other day when I cued Zani to drop a stinky dead snake and come to me…and she did! Sadly, there was no camera running while I thanked her and showered her with all the goodies I had.

Luckily, my friend Marge Rogers has a great video of Rounder, her Rhodesian Ridgeback, practicing his Reliable Recall (from Leslie Nelson’s great DVD). Note in particular what is happening at 0:54 – 1:02. After she successfully calls him away from a yummy plate of food, he gets a constant stream of fabulous food and praise. If you don’t think 8 seconds is a long time for that–try it sometime!

Link to Marge’s video for email subscribers.

Other Reinforcers

Of course, there are other fabulous reinforcers. I use tugging, playing ball, sniffing, personal play, find-it games, and playing in water with my dogs. All these are great relationship builders too. I talk to and praise my dogs all the time, and have successfully used praise to shape behaviors with them. But you know what? Praise would be completely empty if we didn’t have a bond already. It only gains value after we are connected.

So Don’t Forget the Food!

Training with food builds your bond with your dog. It’s not mechanistic or objectifying. Working up good mechanical skills is an act of love, and so is using a great reinforcer. These will help you communicate clearly with your dog. And the observation skills you will gain as you improve as a trainer will help you learn what your dog is saying to you!

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

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11 Responses to The Joy of Training With Food

  1. This post is a lovely reminder of why I love training too. The joy of realising a dog has become clicker savvy and has learned to learn was a real motivator for me.
    I remember a time when I thought I would never be good enough to train with kibble. It happened and I can’t remember how but that boosted my confidence.
    In Pippa Mattison’s book “Total Recall” she recommends carrying a sachet of wet food for a super recall. I carried one around for nearly a month and then the moment happened. I called the dogs back (with a wolf whistle) from giving chase to a deer in full flight. I tore the packet open and they shared. A lick for you and one or you etc. I was so proud.
    I can’t imagine training without food.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      It was a very big deal for me when I realized my dogs would work for kibble. I even wrote a post about it. I had been using very high value stuff for a long time…and of course that’s probably part of why I can use kibble now! I started with passive stuff like non-challenging stays, but they stayed in the game, and here we are!

      That’s a great idea about carrying the great, special treat. I bet that paid off so well, not to mention how delighted it must have made your dogs. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Jenny H says:

    Training with food is SO boring. yes with many dogs it works and is very easy.

    But the joy is working with a dog who is a companion — who gets joy doing things with you.

    OK I suckled my babies when they needed food. NOTHING to do with ‘training” anything. I feed my dogs regularly– with great care that the food is nutritional and that the dogs are neither too lean nor overweight. Nothing to do with training.

    I ask my kids to do something — I expect it because they are part of the family — I do NOT bribe them with sweets or toys. (Grandchildren found that a bit daunting at times.) But they will get sweets and toys at random times, or taken to the circus/park/sports team they want to join (not contingent on any particular behaviour) If I ask something difficult/unpleasant of them they MIGHT get a special treat afterward — but that is very unlikely to be food.

    I ask my dogs to do something — I expect it because they are part of the family. The only difference between dogs and human family members is that they do not have as good a grasp of grammatical English as the humans do. In the very early stages of training, a small food treat is the easiest way to say to the dog — “Yea! That is exactly what I wanted!” It is not the only way, though.

    But in the Bad Old Days I trained several dogs to a very high reliability with nothing more than praise and games. I ONLY encountered difficulties in training when I was naive enough to join a Club that required a check chain and a lot of jerking instead of praise.

  3. Jenny H says:

    FEEDING your dog builds a bond. Hand feeding treats works better than bowls of food on the floor. Playing with your dog builds a bond. For dogs that like it/are small enough allowing the dog to sit on your lap/climb into bed with you builds a bond. Just doing things with your dog builds a bond.
    BUT, IF you want/need to train a dog with whom you do not have a bond, then food training is probably the method most likely to be successful.

  4. Samantha says:

    This post made me smile, so much enthusiasm 🙂 Thanks for sharing! Sam

  5. OlRedHair says:

    I tried again, and it opened! Thank you so much.

    I was curious, why you do the touch between each paw cross?

    Nora

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Hi Nora,

      Glad you were able to see the movie.

      Good question. When I give a release cue, my dogs are not required to move. (In other words, I deliberately don’t have releases on stimulus control.) Since I’m treating a lot in position, she tends to stay there when released. So I’m just using the nose target as a reset. I could just throw a treat, but that would pull her out of the down at least part of the time.

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