Food is an excellent way to reward good behavior. Dogs love it and it gets results. “Food treats speed up the training process in a way that nothing else does,” says Wayne Hunthausen, D.V.M., an animal behaviorist in Westwood, Kansas, and co-author of practitioner’s guide to pet behavior problems.
“It gets the dog’s attention quickly, and when you link it to verbal praise, it’s especially powerful,” says Susan Anderson, D.V.M., a clinical instructor of outpatient medicine in the department of small animal clinical sciences at the University of Florida College of veterinary medicine in Gainesville. Since most dogs like to eat, a bite-sized treat gives them an incentive.
Once your dog understands what you want him to do, it’s not a good idea to keep rewarding him with food, says Sandy Myers, a behavior consultant and trainer in Naperville, Illinois. If a dog knows he will get food all the time, he’ll eventually skip the behavior you trained him to do and just wait for the food. “When I see puppies respond to commands because of food treats, I back off on the food,” says Myers. “A dog should always be waiting and hoping that maybe a treat will come. Hand out a food treats less often and you’ll maintain your dog’s interest a lot longer.”
Alternate verbal praise with tasty tidbits. Hand out goodies from different locations, such as from your other hand or your back pocket. Put the food directly in front of his mouth and let him gently take if from you. Don’t let it drop to the ground. Gradually limit the treats to once every two or three times your dog performs correctly, eventually phasing out food altogether.
Go Easy on Overfeeding:
If you use food as a reward in training, keep an eye on how much your dog is getting. Calculate how much you’ll use for treats, and then deduct that amount from his daily meals. There’s no need to count calories fanatically, but an overfed dog is an unhealthy one who won’t be able to perform at his best. “It’s even okay if your dog is a little bit hungry, but not starving, when you’re training,” says Dr. Anderson. “He’ll focus on his treats and be eager to do an excellent job for you.”