A big misconception in reward based dog training is that positive trainers keep treats on them all the time and their animals refuse to perform if there’s no cookie present. Although there are some trainers out there that do carry cookies on them consistently, that’s definitely not the case for all. Sometimes, however, our clients can get confused about how they transition from using a food reward all the time to getting the dog to work without bribery. The first thing to remember is that, food isn’t the only thing in life that is valuable to a dog. Dogs find many activities rewarding, not just receiving something tasty. If you have ever been in a situation where your dog could care less about the cookies in your hand, this should be very apparent. Where most owners get tripped up, is not rewarding their dogs with things in life for their good behavior. For example, my dog really wants to go outside and is at the door, before I let them out I can ask them to do something for me. What you ask for doesn’t matter, but the understanding to the dog is that they need to comply in order to get what they desire. Now, some dogs will fight you on this issue. Just like us, they’re looking for the path of least resistance. It is our job to show them that the path is in doing what is asked. The door opens much faster if you just put your butt on the floor. Incorporating life rewards for good behavior is how you wean your dog off of the initial motivator, which is food.
The typical dialogue that accompanies positive reinforcement training is the dogs need to be paid for a job well done. This is true! When they’re learning they get paid more often, because it’s a training scenario and we are reinforcing that “good job”. However, if we don’t pair this with the concept that things in life are also rewards and payment, then we create a dependency (for us as well as the dogs) on treats. Food is your tool used to incite motivation and further learning (through whatever technique be it luring, shaping, capturing, etc.), but getting to say hi to another dog, play in the park, be off-leash on a hike, released to run in the back yard…these are all things that we need to learn to reward our dogs with on a regular basis. This not only helps the transition away from treats and food rewards, but also builds the relationship and reliability we have with our dogs. When the world becomes your reward, listening is now your dog’s key to exploring it.