Fading the Food? Should you?

One question we get asked repeatedly is “When can I get rid of using food?” The answer…Never! At least in our minds. Everyone needs to eat so why not use part of your dog’s meal to teach a new behavior, or to perfect one he already knows? Using 10 pieces of your dog’s kibble at each meal is an easy way to work on any behavior he knows – sit, down, watch, hand targeting, etc. Your dog WANTS to work!

Does that mean you have to use food all the time? Every time? Pure and simple, NO! We humans use food rewards as a crutch because we believe it makes the dog’s response more reliable. The fact is that the human just hasn’t learned to fade the food reward or substitute some other reward that the dog will work for.

Excerpted from Chill Out Fido! by Nan Kené Arthur

“Once your dog knows a behavior well, and can perform it in many locations and with many distractions, you can fade the use of your marker signal and rewards. In other words, you don’t need to click and treat every time your dog sits for you. However, it’s also important to pay off every now and then to keep your dog in the game and gambling. “This time might be the time the reward happens, so I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing, just in case.”

I still reinforce my older dogs with food. They love working and will perform a variety of behaviors for just one or two cookies. There is a difference between bribing and rewarding. A bribe is where you ask for a behavior, the dog does not comply, you get the food reward and then show the dog the prize! The dog learns to wait for you to get a cookie before performing a behavior. A reward happens after you ask the dog for a behavior, he complies, and then receives the cookie.

One of the biggest mistake owners make is that they don’t fade the food rewards. They stop giving them, cold turkey. The dog quickly learns that there are other reinforcers in the environment, while the owner gives nothing the dog finds valuable, and the trend is set. Statements like ” he knows how to do it” or “He’s just being stubborn” label the dog as the problem when, in reality, the owner has failed to realize the dog has simply found a better paycheck.

The next time you want to get rid of food rewards remember…your dog must eat too!

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