Teaching With Food Treats.
The use of food treats in training would have to be the most popular method of shaping a behaviour. Many however tend to end up reliant on the food to obtain the behaviours they have taught. Does this have to be the case? Of course not.
One of the major reasons why some people end up totally reliant on food is the way in which it is used. To use any positive reinforcer you have to remember the rules of operant conditioning, as this is the teaching method that is being used. In operant conditioning a behaviour which is intermittently rewarded is more likely to become permanent. When using food to guide and reinforce any action initially treat every correct action, for example if you are teaching the sit every time you get the dog to sit give it a treat. Once the action is understood by the dog we must move from treating the action to treating the concentration. In short we ask for more behaviours before we give the treat to the dog.
If a handler continues to treat each action after the action has been learnt this is where we hit problems, instead of teaching the dog to learn the action we have taught the dog that the command is a prelude to receiving a treat. One must remember that dogs are very aware of subtle and some not so subtle changes in the handler’s behaviour, body position and even their appearance. If a dog is regularly trained using treats from a treat bag and is constantly rewarded when that treat bag is in sight, the dog will quickly associate the appearance of the treat bag as a signal that it is about to receive treats. Intermittently rewarding will stop this association from taking place.
Handlers also need to be aware of how they present the treat to the dog, if your hand position is different when you give a hand signal holding a treat and without a treat in your hand the dog will notice. This visual signal will let the dog know if it is likely to be treated or if it is not, so again if the action has become associated with getting a treat and the dog knows that due to the hand position no treat is going to be forthcoming, you are not likely to get the action you desire.
Finally there is a misconception by some trainers that they are “paying their dogs to work” when they are constantly treating the dogs for their actions. This is a spatial thought concept that dogs just simply don’t have, to them it is more about opportunities, if they know that you are going to train them and through an association that training always leads to food the motivation to do as you ask is not one of wanting to please, it becomes all about the food. Intermittent rewards will prevent a dog from making this association, in this way the action has been taught using a treat but the dog is never actually sure when or even if it will be treated.
But why are food treats so commonly used? Treats are easy to obtain, don’t tend to overstimulate the dog and most importantly it can be used successfully in a group situation without causing a major disruption.
There are so many different treats available that people can be overwhelmed by choice. For a treat to be successful it needn’t be expensive but it does need to be of a high value to the dog. For this reason many, myself included, will steer away from dried treats in favour of a wet treat. Personally the normal commercial, locally made, dog loafs make an excellent high value treat which is inexpensive to purchase. Be wary of treats with high salt content or other additives which may not be good for your dog.
In the case of overweight dogs all treats should be considered to be part of their normal daily intake of food and their normal meals reduced accordingly, again a good reason to be using a balanced dog food as the treat as opposed to something a bit more exotic. Be very mindful of using large quantities of treats as this may well cause upset stomachs in the dog, especially if the treat is not a normal part of its diet. Any allergies your dog has must also be considered and don’t be distracted by the “flavour” written on the packet ….. read the ingredients ….. most beef flavoured treats will still contain a variety of other meats so take the time to read the ingredients so you know what you are actually feeding your dog.
It should also be noted that whilst food does provide motivation to the dog there are very few dogs which are food obsessed, which is a good thing, but if you have a dog which is very driven to chase something the chances of stopping that dog by offering a treat is unlikely to be successful. This is due to the reward of chasing being higher than the reward of the treat. This fact is often over looked by new handlers, the dog responds well to food in the home so it appears natural that food will be successful out in the big wide world. If the level of distraction is higher than the value put on treats by the dog, a treat will have little or no effect on obtaining the behaviour you have asked for.
Food treats can be used with very good success in dealing with timid puppies, but again only as long as the pressure they feel from interacting with a new situation is low enough not to engage a defense reaction such as flight or fight. If the pup is feeling sufficiently stressed it is unlikely that it will want the food treat. Use this as a guide that you are putting too much pressure on the puppy, have the person put the treat on the ground or leave it with the dog but don’t continue to keep the pup under pressure hoping that a food treat will eventually win it over.
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