Food rewards: Way to a dog’s heart IS through its stomach
Why train your dog with food rewards? A growing body of research says it’s the easiest and most effective way to train. “Using treats during training is the best way to guarantee that your dog will repeat the behavior you want,” says the American Kennel Club.
Other methods don’t work as well, experts say, and can even harm your dog and the pet-owner relationship. Erica Feuerbacher, an assistant professor in the department of animal and poultry science at Virginia Tech, did a study that compared a food reward to the reward of petting and praise. Dogs were clear about what they preferred: “They’ll work harder and respond faster for food than for social interaction,” she says.
Dogs love to be with us, but our monkey chatter doesn’t mean that much to them. Feuerbacher has found that dogs will stay near a person who’s praising them for the same amount of time as if they’re being ignored. And if you want your dog to obey because they love you, get real.
“If only it was like that!” says Zazie Todd, author of the forthcoming ‘Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy’. “If your boss stopped paying you, you’d probably stop going to work pretty quickly. You need to motivate your dog too.”
Dog trainers also talk about “life rewards” like getting to play or go for a walk. These can be useful, especially to maintain behaviors you’ve already trained, but take longer. “For most everyday behaviors that ordinary people want to teach, food is quicker and easier,” says Todd.
“You want to find a trainer who’s using modern reward-based methods, and that means they’ll be using food to train a dog,” she says.
Consider the alternatives that don’t involve rewards. Punishment also works to change behavior.
However, research has shown that using punishment in dog training has serious side effects. “The risks include fear, anxiety and stress,” says Todd. While some dogs will work for just a portion of their kibble, for most you have to offer something better. Feuerbacher says, “Break out the spray cheese or liverwurst. People may need to be creative.”
Research shows that training dogs with food is more effective than using other rewards, like praise, and doesn’t have the risks of alternative methods