How Dogs Learn

Food as Payment

Most of the behaviors we want our dogs to do for us are unnatural for them. Teaching them particular behaviors such as walking without pulling on the leash, or calling them away from a fabulous wrestling match with their pals, or not allowing them to smell a delicious dead bird on the street may prove to be tedious for the person who doesn’t build the desire in their dog to want to work with them.

Most of the behaviors we want our dogs to do for us are unnatural for them.

That’s what the food is all about: it is a motivator. It is payment for a job well done. There are things everywhere that the puppy and adult dog will deem to be more interesting than we are. We need to give them a reason to want to pay attention to us and to carry out any task we request. Would you work for free? Probably not, so why would your dog? Food is one of the most potent motivators for animals and since they won’t accept cash, teach your puppy using food.

Food is one of the most potent motivators for animals.

Walt Disney was wrong. A dog is not born wanting to please us and to work for us for nothing. A food-motivated dog is a good thing. Just like us, they need to be inspired and rewarded. Food treats should be tiny, tasty, and smelly. In many cases you will also use the puppy’s kibble (see Food Bowl and Hand Feeding exercises in Prevention. Train when the pup is hungry, not full and not famished.

It is important to make the distinction that the food is not a bribe. Do you think of your salary as an immoral or dishonest incentive? Working with treats is a form of payment.

The objective is to phase out the food rewards as the behavior comes solidly into place. It is a powerful training tool. (See Tracking your Training Progress for a handy chart).

When and How To Work With Food

In the beginning, reward every correct response with a bit of food. Once the behavior becomes reliable you will use the food rewards more randomly. For example, treat for the first correct response and then again for the fourth correct response. After that, reward for the second and the fifth; it is important that the rewards are random. When you become more unpredictable with the food, that will help to really solidify the behavior in the dog. Your puppy has no idea when his efforts may pay off. This helps to keep him interested and trying hard to get the goods.

Later, as you and the puppy progress, your dog will have to start working harder for his pay, and you need to become more discriminating so that you are only rewarding the really fast and great responses that you get from your pup. Just as important as using the food, is using it correctly. You need to become somewhat of a slot machine (think casino) in the dog’s mind, so he never quite knows when he is going to hit the jackpot, but he sure as heck is going to keep working at it because he knows there will eventually be a payoff.

You can adjust your puppy’s feed to compensate for the amount of treats he is getting.

Remember, use very tiny pieces. (See Using Treats in this section and also Educate, Motivate and Stimulate! in Prevention).

Table: How to Rate Food

In the eyes of your dog, not all food is rated equal. From his perspective, kibble or dry food gets a lower rating, whereas something like boiled chicken, dried liver, or a piece of cheese rates very high.

Food/reward $$ equal
Steak Jackpot!
Cheese, dried liver, hot dog $50
Boiled chicken $20
Soft dog treat $10
Hard biscuit or kibble $0.25
Pat on the head Free
Secondary Reinforcement

If the food is given to the dog at the same time they hear something like “good dog” or “well done,” after enough repetitions of the food and praise together, the praise on its own has a little more oomph. It indicates to the dog that they have done what you wanted.

Look at the food as the main or primary reinforcement but it is also important to have a back up. There will be other things that you will use in place of the food. This is where praise comes in. Comparatively speaking praise may not be a strong motivator when training your puppy. Just think about it this way, if all you got from your boss was praise, you probably wouldn’t stick around that long. It is secondary to a paycheck.

Learning Plateaus

When a certain amount of behavior or information has been learned, there will often be a resistance to learning new things until the initial behavior or information becomes fully absorbed and adopted. This is true of humans as well as puppies. It is not clearly understood what boosts the next stage of learning. This is an important phenomenon that you should be aware of when training.

Often when a pup is slightly stressed or overwhelmed he will exhibit this behavior.
Displacement Behaviors

During training sessions with your puppy you may observe him yawning or scratching himself as though he has an itch. Many times what we are observing is called displacement behavior. Often when a pup is slightly stressed or overwhelmed he will exhibit this behavior. If you are working on teaching your puppy something and you see him doing this, he is probably trying to digest what is being taught and it also may be a little stressful for him. To relieve some of the tension that he feels, he yawns and scratches.

Running Interference

Let’s face it, puppies can be a handful and a lot to keep up with. There are going to be times when the pup is up to something that we are not going to want him doing. Remember it is our responsibility to keep the pup safe and under control. The crate is there for the pup’s safety and comfort and, in some cases, your sanity. When the pup does have the opportunity to err how should you react?

Troubleshooting

At any point during the training process, if you see things begin to deteriorate, backtrack and set your puppy up to succeed. In other words, do something you know your dog is capable of and then continue on.