I'm not sure why some people are resistant to training with food, but the good news is that there are lots of other reinforcers you can use if you don't want to use food.
Make a list of the things your dog loves. Not just likes, but loves. I'm talking about everything:
- games with you
- activities (going for walks)
- access to fun stuff (going outside to play with the neighbor dog)
- touch (belly rubs)
- anything else your dog is a fanatic about
The picture I used in this post shows Nemo chewing on a chunk of dead grass. For Nemo, this would be a good reward! He clearly enjoys chewing it.
It's really important that your dog LOVE these things, not just like them. The reason food is such a good reinforcer for dogs is because they need it to stay alive. They can't live without it. That alone makes it a super powerful reward to your dog. But this article isn't about why you should use food (and there are a lot of good reasons), it's about what other reinforcers you can use instead of food.
It's important to make sure the reinforcer matches the difficulty of the task. For instance, coming when called is usually pretty tough — there are lots of better things to do (in the dog's mind) than come to you. There are dogs to play with, deer to chase, smells to investigate, grass to roll in…the list goes on and on.
So when you call the dog and he comes, give him the very best, most rewarding thing your dog loves. Usually, I'd recommend a piece of steak — steak makes quite an impression on a dog. The next time you call, he be there even quicker than last time because he still remembers the steak! But if you don't want to use food, what's the next best thing (according to the dog)? Whatever the next best thing is, you'd better use it. And be generous with it.
One last thing, make sure the dog thinks the reward is as good as you think it is. In other words, it's up to the dog to decide how good a reward is, not you. So while YOU may think praise is pretty good, your dog may not find it nearly as rewarding. Maybe the dog would much rather chase the tennis ball. Or go for a swim in the lake.
So you don't have to use food, that's true. But it's still the fastest and most powerful reinforcer for most of our dogs. If you decide not to use food, just be very sure that your dog finds what you're using very rewarding.
Laurie Luck says
Thanks for your comment. A few weeks ago I was at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. I took a really nice video of Director of Training, Ken Ramirez, interacting with an 11 year old Beluga whale. She loves having her tongue scratched. Watching her joy was priceless. The trainers at Shedd use primary reinforcers – food – for all the training, but if they are very skilled trainers, they can also work in tactile reinforcers as well.
The animals work for their daily rations — they have to be fed anyway, why not let that food do double-duty: their meal and their training rewards. It’s an efficient use of both training and food! 🙂 Thanks again for your comment. I’m glad you shared a wonderful 14-years with your Labrador.