Phasing Out Food Lures and Rewards

Training with food lures and treat rewards is common.

There are many different training styles, techniques, and methods all of which use food, toys, lures and rewards in a variety of ways. Many dog owners aren’t sure when and how to phase out some of these food or toy lures and rewards. Decreasing the treats given is just as important as teaching your dog to work with and for treats; after all, you don’t want to have a handful of treats in your pocket all the time.

Assess Your Training and Your Dog

Take a good look at your dog and the training you both have done to this point. I’ll use my ten month old English Shepherd puppy, Hero, as an example. Hero is still very puppyish mentally. He’s bright and learns quickly but still has a short attention span. Right now, I use a lure and reward training technique with him, using food as a lure, my voice as a marker to tell him when his actions are correct, and food rewards and verbal praise as rewards.

He knows sit, lie down, stay, come, watch me, leave it, and other exercises generally regarded as basic obedience training. However, his sit stays are still short, although his down stays are better. His heel still needs work. His come is good but his sit when he reaches me could be better.

Don’t Go Cold Turkey

It’s important not to immediately and abruptly stop with the food lures and rewards. After all, these have been an important part of the training process and if they suddenly disappear, your dog will consider that a breach of contract. In his eyes you have taught him, “Do this and I’ll give you a treat.”

Instead, this process will consist of changing some of the rewards, introducing new ones, changing how they are used, and then gradually stopping the use of the food rewards. When you make changes that include introducing new rewards, this will lessen the dog’s focus and dependence on the food treats.

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Find Other Rewards

Before beginning the weaning process, find a few other things that your dog really likes that can be used as rewards when food is not offered. Every dog is different so you may need to try a few different things. The ideal rewards will produce as much excitement as food does for your dog.

Tennis balls, squeaky toys, or tug toys are great for some dogs. With your dog, before introducing non-foods into your training process, make sure your dog will give the toy back to you when you ask. He’ll either drop the toy at your feet, drop it in your hand, or release the tug toy.

Other rewards can be verbal praise and petting. My four year old English Shepherd, Bones, will almost turn himself inside out for verbal praise. A happy, “Good boy! You’re awesome!” is better for him than an ear rub or scratch on the chest.

For most dogs, though, especially puppies, you will need something more than just your voice in the early stages of training. As you narrow down the possibilities to a few rewards your dog really likes, try a variety of things and see what your dog appreciates most.

Randomly Substitute Other Rewards

Once you’ve identified a few rewards your dog loves, you can begin substituting one of them randomly throughout a training session. This means you’re going to have both food treats and the toy. Use a treat once, twice, three times, then a toy. Use the toy a couple of times and then go back to food. Really try to make the use of each random. Remember—dogs spot patterns easily.

So in teaching Hero to return to the heel position by my left side, I can use either a food lure or his favorite ball. I’ll hold the food lure or ball out so he can see and smell it, then as I say, “Hero, side,” I will move the lure so that he follows it and ends up by my side. I’ll then immediately give him the food treat or toss the ball up in the air a few inches so he catches it. I still praise him, “Awesome!”

When you begin this substitution there might initially be some confusion. Some dogs may feel like they are being cheated, “Hey! Where’s my treat?” Other dogs will be thrilled that a favorite toy has been introduced to the training process. The dogs who feel cheated may need a change in toys, more verbal praise, a tug game, or something else that will help them overcome that feeling.

Phasing Out a Reward

Don’t try to phase out rewards until you are skilled at substituting rewards and your dog has caught on that this is a fun game. This is important because many dogs lose interest in complying with your training efforts if their favorite reward disappears, especially if it disappears too soon or too quickly.

When you feel it’s time to phase out the reward, choose an exercise your dog knows well. Sit is a common one.

For example, I ask Hero to sit and he does it nicely so I tell him, “Awesome!” as soon as his hips touch the ground. Then immediately I release him from the sit and encourage him to move. No food reward or toy reward but free movement is a reward, too, so being told he can get up and bounce around is a great reward. As he looks at me, I smile and make soft, happy eye contact. His tail is wagging and I don’t think he’s even noticed that he didn’t get a treat.

Some Commands Require Longer

If an exercise is not yet well learned, could be better, or stronger, continue to reward it with the reward your dog likes best. If something is well known and your dog is doing it reliably, then begin rewarding it randomly with other rewards, then later phasing out some of the rewards.

Bring back the best loved food or toy lures and rewards when you introduce a new exercise, game or trick. Bring them back, too, if an exercise needs some refreshing. You’ll find that even when teaching something new you won’t need to keep the treats around as long as you did initially. Your dog knows how to learn and won’t need them.

Keep in mind as you train, dogs repeat actions that are rewarding to them. You control the rewards so use that to your benefit.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and the co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in Vista, CA. Liz is also an award-winning author and writer specializing in pets. She writes about cats, cat behavior and health, dogs, dog behavior and health, living with pets, and pet nutrition. Liz’s works have been recognized with many awards, but her most recent book, “Idiot’s Guides: Dog Training” (Penguin Books, 2014) recently won the Best Nonfiction book category in the San Diego Book Writing competition. Liz shares her home with two dogs; Bashir, an Australian Shepherd, and Bones, an English Shepherd. Three cats, Spock, Scottie, and Kirk, provide motivation for her articles about cats. And yes, she is a Star Trek fan. For more information go to www.kindredspiritsk9.com.

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