“When can I stop using food treats with my dog?” is a question I get asked A LOT.

As with all things dog training, there’s no quick response other than the stock “It depends”

In fact, the answers ‘Never’ and ‘As soon as possible’ are both valid, depending on the context in which the question is asked.

If you are using the food to ‘lure’ the dog i.e. his nose follows your hand with the treat in until his body is doing the behaviour you want (commonly used to teach ‘sit’) - get the food out of your hand as soon as possible!

That’s not to say you need to stop rewarding him. We just want the dog to learn he gets the food because of his actions – not regardless of them. Otherwise you very quickly have a dog who will only do things you ask when he knows you have that biscuit at the ready. And consequences are really important – because it is the result of a desirable consequence which makes the dog more likely to repeat a behaviour in the future.

The good news (for those who are worried about it) is that once your dog is consistently able to perform a trick or behaviour ‘on cue’ i.e. whenever you ask – you can start to reduce the number of times you reward so it’s intermittent, which has been shown to give the fastest, most reliable responses. It's been likened to playing the slot machines. You keep putting coins in even when you didn't win anything back, because of the occasional time when you did win.

BUT, we also know that behaviours which no longer lead to a desirable consequence start to lose their appeal for the dog, and if this happens enough the behaviour becomes ‘extinct’ – it literally dies out. So, it’s a numbers game. In his lifetime, the dog needs to have been rewarded for a behaviour more times than not in order for him to keep doing it.

However, if I’m honest – this is all a RED HERRING.

What owners are really concerned about is giving their dog ‘too much’ food or ‘spoiling them’ with all the food. And this is where I think we need to shift our thinking.

Firstly, rewards do not have to be food, so there’s no reason why you can’t mix things up and keep your training fresh with a toy or a game of chase to reward good work.

Secondly, I think the word ‘TREAT’ is wrong. The definition of ‘treat’ is the act of providing food, drink or entertainment for FREE. But when we’re using food in training – it’s not free!! The dog has to work for it!

It’s free when we give food to the dog in a bowl, put it on the floor and walk away twice a day, which is how the vast majority of dogs ‘earn’ their food. (OK, they might get asked to sit/wait first).

My suggestion is to stop thinking of the food as treats, but instead think of it as CURRENCY. Subtract from your dog’s daily food ration how much you want to INVEST in their training or to capture behaviours that you like - and use the food as PAYMENT during the course of the day.

You can 'treat' your dog to any that's left at the end of the day in his bowl for free if you like!

❤️  🐾🐾


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