Food Fights! Replacing Food Lures with Praise

English Springer Spaniel, close-up

English Springer Spaniel

by Catherine Steinke, CPDT-KA

Last week I broached the topic of motivating your dog by using a food reward, and when your dog knows you have treats in your hand, it is basically luring your dog to do a behavior. Many trainers begin teaching a dog new behavior by showing him a treat and then letting the dog follow the treat into a sit position or a down position or in a circle.  Some trainers will never use food with dogs, saying that it creates a begging dog or that food creates other problems. When used right, food lures can be great for teaching new behaviors. The mistakes happen when food lures are used for too long and the dog learns that if food is not present, there is no expectation of a reward, so why bother? In this article, I’ll explain how to go from food-in-the face to rewarding with praise- even with distractions- in a few easy steps.

First, why use food? Well, because dogs generally like it! Although my clients sometimes tell me their dogs don’t work for food, I’ve not met very many dogs that agree. It’s all about the kind of food we’re offering. Dogs have individual tastes and food preferences. Most dogs go for chicken, liver or cheese, but our shelter manager’s dog prefers kale to any of those! Keep trying to find things your dog loves to eat. Food is easy to manage, fun to give and as soon as your dog eats it, he’s ready to work for more.

If you use food to lure a dog into a position, like sit, then feed the dog immediately, as soon as he plants his behind. When you have repeated that enough times that the dog is anticipating the behavior and getting there quickly,  pair the action with the cue for it. Say “Sit” then lure him into position and feed him. Repeat that many times until the dog is almost getting into position as soon as you say “sit.” Then, begin fading the lure – that is, holding the food further from the dog.
Say, “sit” and then begin your movement as if you were going to lure.  But don’t have a treat in your hand. Reward the dog from the opposite hand! Surprise! Repeat this several times, making your movements less noticeable by small degrees to get the dog to do the behavior, but always feed him for getting there.

Pretty soon, you’ll be ready for the test run. Say, “sit” and don’t move. Wait. Trust me. Just wait. If the dog is engaged, looking at you, puzzled expression, smoke coming out of his ears while he thinks it over, just stand there, relaxed, and wait for him to decide what to do. If he plants his fanny, drop a handful of treats all around him, talk to him in a happy voice and tell him how simply brilliant he is. Then, do it all again.

What you are doing is moving the food from a prompt to a consequence. Instead of bribery, it’s payment. I like to think of rewarding my dogs with stuff they like –especially food –as a simple “thank you” for a job well done. Sound like fun? It is. Check out our training classes if you want to enjoy your dog more. We love helping people build great relationships with their dogs.

Catherine Steinke, CPDT-KA is the Behavior Program Manager for Willamette Humane Society

(503) 585-5900 ext. 318