Just doing it for the food

Some people really get their knickers in a twist about using food when training animals, as though it is somehow cheating or insulting that their pet will work for food. We want to show people how to use food to motivate their pets in training, without bribing their pets or feeling like their pet is only in it for the food.

I like to think of a treat in training like my paycheck. If i didn’t get my paycheck each week i feel fairly certain the standard of my work would decline. Does that mean i’m only working for the money? Nope! I love working with great people, meeting awesome animals, and doing what I love. I also volunteer some of my time to helping local animal organisations, which i enjoy for the experience and warm fuzzies. I’m not working just for the money, but money is motivating for people. Food is motivating for animals!

When we teach our pets something new, we often start off with a treat visible. Our pet can see what’s on offer, and by the position of the treat we can help our pet do the right thing. When the treat is visible like that, we call it a lure (or a bribe). Lures can be really useful early on in training, but if you don’t fade them quickly you will end up with a pet who only responds when he can see what’s on offer.

dog training

That’s why I show people how to keep their treats hidden, and how to use either a clicker or a word to tell their pets they have done the right thing. The pet doesn’t know what treats are on offer, but through training experience we can teach them that listening to us pays off. As your pet gets the hang of a new behaviour, you can start to vary the rate at which you offer the treats. You become a random treat dispenser, and your pet will keep responding in the hope that this time it pays off!

By using treats to motivate your pet during training, you are proving that you are the source of great things, and that, by responding to you, your pet can gain access to things that he likes. Just like i enjoy the people, animals, and work that i do, your pet will enjoy the game of training and the time spent with you. By making training motivating and fun, your pet will genuinely look for ways to engage in training games with you. Training through positive reinforcement strengthens the human-animal bond.

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Is your pet food motivated?

Let me give you a hint. Yes, your pet is food motivated.

Food is what we call a primary reinforcer. This means that it is needed for survival, and is therefore naturally reinforcing. We don’t need to pair it with anything, or condition it in any special way for it to be a good thing. Other primary reinforcers include water, shelter, oxygen, and sex. In training, primary reinforcers are the strongest rewards to use when teaching new behaviours.

Many people claim that they’ve tried positive-reinforcement training before, but their pet simply isn’t food motivated. I challenge this notion, because unless their pet is dead it must be eating. If their pet is eating, then some of those calories can be used for training.

There are a few things that might reduce a pets interest in food during training:

1. You’re being cheap with your food rewards

Stop breaking your treats into microscopic pieces. Imagine if someone fed you a piece of cake crumb by crumb, you wouldn’t enjoy it and you would probably give up on it before the piece was done. Bite-sized pieces are ideal, as they keep training speedy, but your pet would like to taste his hard earned reward!

2. You’re using a low-value food reward

If your pet has free access to a bowl full of dry food/seed/etc, why on earth would he work hard during training to earn what he can get for free? When training new behaviours, use something good – dogs might enjoy chicken or steak pieces, cats might enjoy some fish pate or tuna chunks, and birds might enjoy pine nuts or sunflower seeds.

3. Your pet is stressed/too highly aroused

If your pet is not familiar with training he may be too stressed or highly aroused to even want to eat. Start somewhere your pet is very comfortable, ask for easy behaviours, and end the session early. Some pets have to learn to enjoy training – it is worth the effort!

food motivated dog trainer

Some people choose to further manage their pets diet to increase their motivation for food during training, but in most cases no management further than feeding set amounts at set times (like you would to maintain your pets healthy body condition) is required. For some pets any treat, any time will do! We can work with you to figure out how best to motivate your pet during training.

And of course it’s not always about the food. The goal in positive-reinforcement training is to use food as a reward only occasionally in the long run. Once learned, a behaviour can be maintained using a range of secondary reinforces such as petting, praise, toys, and affection. It’s not about the treats, it’s about the motivation, and science has shown us again and again that food is the fastest way to hitting those early training goals!