5 Common Mistakes To Avoid When Training Your Dog With Food

/ by Jasper Molloy

Food is an excellent tool for training animals. All animals require a certain amount of calories to survive, and we can utilise this in order to encourage and reward desirable behaviours.

Using food rewards improves the relationship with your pet and helps create positive associations with you, the training environment and other things in their surroundings.

However, food can be used improperly in dog training – these are some of the most common mistakes you should try to avoid.

1. (Not) Choosing Your Bait Wisely

One of the traps we fall into when training with food is using rewards that simply are not valuable enough for the dog to be interested in, especially when in a challenging environment. Sometimes the distractions are just too difficult, and the type of reward you are using just won’t cut it.

Another problem is we often assume what the dog wants, instead of actually exploring the dog’s preferences – we might opt to use cheese because “he should like cheese”, when actually that particular dog would prefer a piece of chopped carrot to anything else.

To avoid this pitfall, audition different types of food reward with your dog to create a hierarchy of most valuable to least valuable. Then you can make a decision about selecting the appropriate reward for each training scenario. When there are lots of fun things happening around you, you will need higher value food to compete with the distractions.

However, you want to save the high value rewards for these particularly difficult situations to keep them special. If you start using the best bait all the time, it diminishes its value. So be sure to assess the individual scenario to decide what value of reward is most appropriate.

2. Imperfect Timing

When it comes to consequences in training, they need to happen very shortly after the behaviour occurs in order for a pairing to be made. Timing is critical, or else you may end up rewarding something you did not intend to.

When using food rewards, the potential fallout of bad timing is much less dire than when you use aversives (such as pain and discomfort, e.g. corrections) – any unintentional associations that you create will be based on positive, happy emotions so you do not risk creating fear, aggression or avoidance.

A lot of timing issues can be overcome with good mechanics (quick, smooth food delivery) or by using a marker.

A marker is a word or noise that communicates the exact moment that the animal did something that you like, and is always followed by a reward. This means that even if there is a delay in you reaching for and delivering the food, you have still told the animal exactly what they are being rewarded for.

Markers are often necessary for teaching precise behaviours. Clickers are a popular noise to use as a marker, as well as the word “yes” or “good” said in a consistent tone.

3. Using Treats That Are Too Big

Some people think that they need to give their dogs the largest treats in training, but this ends up meaning that you are giving them a higher amount of calories in fewer repetitions. The treat only needs to be large enough for the dog to taste and enjoy it, and it is recommended that treats are cut up into smaller pieces (especially if you have a small dog).

Extra big, super special treats certainly have their place, but for most training, you will benefit most from a higher quantity of smaller morsels. You can carry more treats this way, and there isn’t as much downtime between reinforcements waiting for the dog to chew/finish the food.

Using lots of big treats can have a negative impact on motivation too, as the dog becomes full up sooner and is therefore more likely to lose interest in the food.

This is why I am a big fan of semi-moist treats and food that can be cut or broken up into bite-sized pieces. When you are training a new behaviour or an inexperienced dog, you need to deliver a high rate of reinforcement (multiple treats a minute) in order to train efficiently and keep the dog engaged, which is easier with smaller rewards.

4. Not Paying Attention to Delivery Method and Placement

How and where you deliver the food can be very important, and can either aid or hinder our progress towards a behavioural goal with our dogs.

One mistake people make is failing to consider how the way they deliver the reward or where the reward is presented is impacting their training.

Reward delivery (the way in which the food is given to the dog) and placement (the position the dog or food is in) have a notable effect on the behaviour that we end up with.

For instance, if you have a playful or movement-driven dog, you can make food more exciting by tossing or rolling it. Or if you are teaching heelwork, you want to ensure that the dog collects the reward in the right position.

If you are working on a stationary position but recall your dog to their reward instead of rewarding them in the desired position, the dog can end up anticipating this and breaking the position before you want them to. As renowned animal trainer Bob Bailey famously said, “Click for action, feed for position”.

5. “Show Me the Money!”

We’ve all been there. You cue a behaviour, the dog looks back at you as if to ask why you are talking nonsense, until you reach into your pocket and hold out a piece of hotdog on their nose… and suddenly, you get perfect performance.

It is a very easy trap to fall into. And the dog learns that if they don’t respond to the cue the first time, they are presented with food. So the next time you cue them, they stare at you waiting for the piece of hotdog or for the reach of the hand into the bag of goodies.

In these instances, the mistake is in using food as a ‘bribe’ (for want of a better term) instead of a reinforcer. It could be that the lure was not faded properly, so the dog is still reliant on seeing the food in order to do the behaviour.

If that is the problem, it can be resolved by working through a training plan to fade the lure and replace it with a cue instead. Or it could be that the dog has simply developed a strong habit of waiting to be ‘shown the money’, and you just need to prove to the dog that even if they don’t see the reward before doing the behaviour, they still get it afterwards.

You can try having the treats in a bowl placed on the side out of reach, that you run to with your dog once they have performed the behaviour you want.

These are just some of the mistakes people run into when using food and treats in training. It is also important to remember that food is only one potential type of reinforcer you can use. Rewards don’t always have to be food, but food is certainly a very convenient and effective motivator for the majority of animals.