I get asked this a lot.: “My dog’s not interested in food so, is it okay to train without treats?”
And “Can a dog be trained without treats?”
The short answer is yes!
I’ve a pretty good perspective on this topic as I trained dogs without food for over thirty years.
I explained to those who were promoting the use of food in training, that “my dogs work to please me, not for bribes or treats”. And that “my dogs won’t eat anyway while they are working.”
Which was perfectly true.
Indeed, one of my party tricks to silence treat training aficionados was to offer a treat to one of my spaniels while we were out working together, which she would take politely, then gently spit it out on the ground.
My view, and I felt hers too, was that food was definitely for amateurs!
Dog training methods without treats
So, as someone who trained dogs without food for many years, I’m pretty clear that it is entirely possible to train a dog without food.
Let’s look at how that’s done. There are various methods.
One way is to use other types of reinforcers. I tend to think of these as ‘activity rewards’
We use the term ‘reinforcers’ for anything that causes a dog to repeat a behavior more often. If my give my dog a treat each time she sits, I am reinforcing the sit with food. But reinforcers do not have to be edible.
You can train a dog instead, using activity rewards: toys and access to opportunities such as chasing a ball or running free outdoors.
Make no mistake. These kinds of activities can be hugely rewarding for many dogs.
But there is a catch.
Activity reinforcers are very time consuming to manage and deliver.
If I throw a toy for my dog as a reward for each sit-stay – I can only fit three or four ten second sit-stays in a five minute training session. Because the rest of the time is taken up with throwing and retrieving toys.
Practice makes perfect
If I reinforce my sit-stays with food – delivered and consumed almost instantaneously – I can fit maybe twenty sit stays in the same period of time.
In the space of a week or two, my dog will have performed hundreds more sit-stays than his activity rewarded friends.
This extra practice can be very helpful in developing reliable behaviors in your dog.
The value in activity rewards
The real value of activity based reinforcers comes as the dog matures and his education progresses.
Later on in training, as each task we give the dog is more complex, a fairly time consuming reinforcer is neither here nor there. It’s the task that takes up the bulk of the time
But in the beginning, each task we ask of the dog is short and sweet. And the rewards need to match them. That’s why the use of food in puppy training is now almost universal.
What about praise?
“But, but!” You say “my dog doesn’t need activity rewards either. A quick pat or a kind word from me is all that’s required!”
“And I can give my dog a pat as quickly as giving him a treat.”
That also is true. But there’s a catch here too!
Not all reinforcers are equal.
Different rewards have different value.
These things we call reinforcers are by definition rewards or activities that make the behaviors we like our dogs to carry out stronger and more reliable.
That’s what a reinforcer is. It is anything that increases behavior.
The more highly a dog values a reward, the more powerful the reinforcing effect of that reward in training. And the more it increases behavior.
The most powerful reinforcers in the animal kingdom, are things that satisfy basic needs, such as hunger and thirst. We call these primary reinforcers.
Anything that satisfies powerful primitive urges such as sexual and predatory drives is also a powerful reinforcer
The bottom line is that nothing on this planet can motivate a dog as well as a primary reinforcer. And in all forms of animal training, primary reinforcers beat other reinforcers hands down for effectiveness as training aids.
And as you have probably guessed, praise and patting simply can’t compete. That’s where punishers come in
Correcting our dogs
It’s true that dog trainers around the world have been training dogs successfully without food for generations.
And the way they do it, is by correcting the dog when they make a mistake.
We have an article on correction: How To Correct A Puppy, that you might find helpful.
The term ‘correction’ in dog training is a euphemism for ‘mild punishment’ And punishers are the opposite of reinforcers. They diminish behavior.
Sounds like you need a balance of both reinforcers and punishers to train a dog then doesn’t it?
For a long time most trainers believed this to be true. But in the last twenty years, more and more trainers have moved across to force-free training.
And have abandoned the use of adding punishment into their dog training lessons. But why have they made this change? And does force-free training really work?
Why avoid corrections?
As we’ve seen, corrections are a mild form of punishment. And punishment can be very effective at diminishing unwanted behavior.
But, punishment comes with disadvantages. Including an increased risk of aggression even where the punishment used is not painful or extreme.
Punishment also reduces learning speed and comprehension. Because as we all know from our schooldays, it’s hard to think, let alone remember what you have just been taught, when you are worrying about avoiding punishment.
Most people agree that they would rather train their best friend without punishment, provided that training works!
Happily, force-free training is effective. And force-free trained dogs are now succeeding in every discipline. Even military and service dogs are now trained this way.
Many dog training enthusiasts started by gradually crossing over, including some force free skills in their repertoire, and discarding harsher corrections. No-one is returning to the old methods.
The speed of this change is accelerating now as more studies reveal the downsides of training with punishment, and as more trainers discover the joys of force free training and push at the boundaries of what can be achieved.
But what about dogs that can’t be trained with food? That aren’t interested in working for food?
My dog won’t work for food
It’s not unusual to hear people say “my dog won’t work for food”. Just like my little Meg in the example above, many dogs won’t eat when they are excited or distracted.
Meg was more than ten years old when I decided to revisit her aversion to eating in public!
I did some clicker training with her, and introduced distractions back gradually. She was soon working for food under all kinds of conditions and my spitting out trick was lost for good.
All dogs need to eat
The simple truth is that all dogs will work for food because it is a primary reinforcer i.e. essential for life. There are no exceptions.
If a dog isn’t interested in food during training, then the food isn’t high value enough for that task, or the dog isn’t hungry enough. Usually the latter.
And with the right techniques you can teach any dog to work for food. We teach these techniques in our Foundation Skills online training course.
Food not treats
A big source of confusion on this topic is the use of the phrase ‘training treats’.
We all use the term, but you are actually training with your dog’s food. Not treats. And I think it’s important to clarify that point.
Most puppies benefit from earning almost ALL their food in training. And many experts now encourage people not to feed their puppies from a bowl at all.
So is it okay to train without food?
The short answer is no. Not if you want to avoid punishment.
If you want to train without force, and without food, you will need to use high value motivators such as food or toys / activities that the dog enjoys.
This will be a real disadvantage to you.
The truth about “no treat dog training”
‘No treat dog training’ is a bit like trying to train a dog with one hand tied behind your back.
It’s tempting to think you can adapt positive reinforcement training and simply replace the food part with praise and affection. But here’s the thing.
There is not a single example that I can think of anywhere, of any dog reaching a high standard of training in competition or as a companion without either the use of high value reinforcers, or the use of punishment.
So, if you want to avoid punishment you have to learn how to train with high value reinforcers.
A pat or kind word of praise simply isn’t a powerful enough reinforcer to change a dog’s behavior in the presence of any worthwhile alternative.
It might work in your kitchen, or back yard for a while. But it isn’t going to work in the real world where there are squirrels to chase.
Fortunately modern training methods are effective and fun. There’s no need to get left behind because you don’t want to punish your dog.
I have no regrets about changing my methods and I’m confident you won’t either.
You’ll find plenty of good dog trainers nowadays who offer force free classes and all the online courses on this website are force-free
Give it a try. Grab few treats and a good training book or course. Enjoy your dog and have fun together!
‘Dog Training Without Treats’ was written by Pippa Mattinson, best selling author of Total Recall and The Happy Puppy Handbook, and the founder of the Dogsnet Training Program
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