"My dog should do what I ask because I said so. No bribes here!"
"Of course he's listening to you! You have treats!"
"Giving treats creates a dog that is sure to beg at the table"
If I had a dime for every time I have heard one of these statements, I would be writing this on a keyboard made of gold, just like Kanye.
Like most conventional wisdom, all of these statements are born of a toe dipped into the pool of truth. You certainly can teach your dog to only perform some of the time when you have a treat in your hand and you most certainly can create a dog who begs at the table. I have provided a step by step training plan at the end of this article to teach those very things (not that you'd want to!) But first, I want to talk about some of the reasons we may struggle with the idea of training with food.
"My dog should do as I say. I should not have to use treats at all"
There is a pervasive belief in our culture that dogs live to please us. At the same time, we are told that dogs are out to take over ("dominate us" is the way this is usually described) the household given half a chance. I am not sure how these two beliefs can exist at the same time but they do and I believe that this dichotomy accompanied by childhood memories of strict instructions to never feed our dog from the table is largely responsible for the angst we feel when we consider training with food.
"Of course he's paying attention to you! You have treats!"
Here's what I say to this: Yes! Exactly! Food is a very powerful reinforcer. Why wouldn't he pay attention to me when there is the possibility of earning a treat? After all, what do we do when we plan a celebration? We include FOOD. We make special food for special occasions, share our favorite food in casual gatherings, prepare meals by hand for those we love, in fact, we rarely do anything socially with others without food being present in some way. Yet we are appalled when a dog is also happy to see and eat food. Why? Is it that we think of it as a bribe and not a reward?
"Okay, you tell me why training with food isn't a flat out bribe"
Bribe: Something serving to influence or persuade.
Reward: Something given or received in recompense for worthy behavior
Common denominator? Both involve the giving of something desired in return for an action.
The difference? One happens before the action, which is usually an unsavory act (bribe) and the other after the action, usually a worthy act (reward)
Let's not forget biology
A dog will work for his food, just as dogs have done from the beginning of time.
Dogs that must find their own food do not lie around waiting for it to be delivered. Even dogs in the poorest countries that live off of trash heaps must work for their meals, dodging competitors in an attempt to get the best food first. It is not a life of leisure.
Clicker (or marker)Training
There are many good books and articles written about clicker training, making it unnecessary for me to explain the concept here. I have included some excellent resources at the bottom of this page so I will only make the following points:
Clicker training is not about the food. It is about reinforcement and creating a positive association between the cue (command) and the behavior (the "sit" or "stay" or whatever you are teaching). Think Pavlov and the power of association.
Teaching in small steps and rewarding each successful step while gradually increasing the difficulty of the steps allows you to teach a dog anything he is physically and mentally capable of performing. As a bonus, properly rewarding those achievements creates a dog that enthusiastically participates in the training process; a dog unafraid to try different behaviors because if he is on the wrong track, he knows it instantly by virtue of not hearing the click. The click=yes=reward (usually, but not always, food) Why food? As we have already discussed, food is a very powerful reinforcer. It is also convenient and necessary (all living things must eat)
People new to clicker training are often surprised at the small size of the treats used. Most often they are the size of a pea. Training sessions are kept short so the actual food consumed is fairly small. You can always reduce regular feedings by the amount you give in training sessions if weight gain is a concern.
Now, as promised, here is a step by step plan to teach your dog to beg at the table and to only perform "sometimes" when food is used.
Begging at the table: Feed your dog at the table for breathing. He shows up, he gets food. Just toss your little fluffball bits of steak and other goodies as you eat dinner and I guarantee he will be back the next time around! Oh, wait...what? You only meant to do that once and he should know when not to beg? Sorry, your dog learns fast and remember, food is a powerful reinforcer. Toss him treats while you are eating and you will have a dinner companion forever. Bonus: you can easily teach him to also whine by tossing him a treat when he does to "make him stop"
Teaching your dog to only work "when he feels like it": Begin this behavior by holding the food out in an obvious manner (you may try waving it near his nose) as you ask him to do something over and over again. Confusing him is the goal here so it really helps if you talk to him throughout. Just assume that even if he does not understand every word, he surely understands what you mean. Here is an example:
Hold food out as you say "Sit!" As the dog moves towards the food, jerkily move it around, like a mosquito in flight, always keeping it in the dog's view as you provide a running commentary; "Nooooo, sit. Did I say come and get the food? No, I said "sit" SIT, sit, sit, SIT, sit sit. Noooooo, SIT, Fluffy. Fluffy...Fluffy...Fluffy... SIT. Oh, here. Here is your cookie. Next time sit when I ask you to."
Better yet, you could just consider that you hold all the cards and make the power of food work for YOU!