Do I have to use food to train my dog? Is training a dog with food bribing?

A question I am often asked when referring to reinforcing the dog’s desirable behaviour with a treat, or using a clicker and following up with a treat is: “Do I have to use food to train my dog?”

Dog Training With Food, Yes or No?
Dog Training With Food, Yes or No?

You don’t have to use any particular tool to train your dog. Professionals like food because it is one of the most powerful motivators in animal training. The reality is that you get more strongly conditioned behaviour if you do not limit yourself to praise alone.

Another advantage of food is that you can use it to target the dog into position. Food, therefore, has two roles: as a target (“lure”) and as a reward. Training with positive reinforcement allows the dog to relax and learn and strengthens the bond between you and the dog. Over time, you can expect “more for your money”, that is more behaviours for fewer treats. You will also become skillful at incorporating other rewards into training.

Aren’t I actually bribing my dog by luring him into position with a treat?
You can’t bribe a dog for doing something he doesn’t even yet have in his repertoire! Put yourself in his place. Imagine that someone said “palana”. What would you do? Nothing, because you don’t understand what that person wants you to do let alone why you should do it. Physically placing your dog into position slows down learning and has negative side effects. Using a target allows you to elegantly obtain the correct behaviour.

Will I always have to food reward my dog?
Certainly not as frequently as for a newer behaviour, but yes, maintenance of established behaviour with (concealed) intermittent rewards is a must. There is no free lunch in behaviour. Think of it this way: you have to feed your dog anyway. You can give it all to him for free in a bowl or you can reserve part of his daily caloric intake and make him earn it! Also, don’t forget that there are other rewards besides food: everyday things such as play, sniffing, walks, door opening, car rides and access to other dogs can also be used to reward established behaviour.

Dogs are just like us: if they can’t win, they won’t play, so it’s our job to make the dog successful. Even if you like your job, you expect to be paid and if you’re not, you quit…

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