In what ways can I use food treats to help me train my dog?

Posted by Tracy Morgan on

The second in a series of training blogs written for us by Gretta Ford at The Pitter Patter of Tiny Paws.

When most people think of using food treats in training, they think of teaching a cued behaviour where their dog learns to do something specific (like put their bottom on the floor) in response a verbal or visual signal (sit).  They are then rewarded with a tasty treat for their efforts. Using food treats in this way is great!  It’s a kind, positive approach to teaching your dog the skills that you need them to know, build your bond through shared communication and have fun whilst doing it. [See the previous blog on why to use food treats in training if you missed it]. 

As I’m a dog trainer, you would be forgiven for assuming that training cued behaviours, as described above, would account for my primary use of food treats.  However, there are other really important (and super powerful!) ways to use food when working with dogs, which are often overlooked.

One of these - my absolute favourite, in fact - is capturing behaviours.  What this means is that your dog chooses to offer a behaviour and you take the opportunity to reinforce it, by giving a food treat as a consequence.  You didn’t ask them to do it or teach them to do it but you liked it, so you don’t miss your chance to tell them that.. because you know that whatever is reinforced is repeated!  

Now, dogs are pretty good at making associations so it generally doesn’t take them long to work it out and therefore, start to offer that behaviour more - showing you that you just positive reinforced it… pretty clever – and it didn’t even feel like training!   

I use this technique of capturing all the time, with dogs of all ages, but I love using it the most with puppies!  They are like little learning sponges: primed to learn through the power of association.  

A really lovely example of this is when puppies offer ‘check ins’ (you know, when you’re out on a walk and they look back at you, to make sure that you’re still there).  This behaviour is linked to a developmental phase which they will ultimately grow out of.  Of course, this means that, in most cases, the check-ins will diminish over time too… unless you have reinforced them.  So, what do you do?  Well, it’s easy - every time your little pup checks in with you, let them know how clever you think they are and offer them a treat.  This will help to ensure that those check-ins will continue well beyond the developmental phase, making your walks easier for everyone.  Don’t worry - you don’t have to offer a treat for every check-in for their whole life but it pays to establish the habit solidly early on.

You can use capturing for all sorts of behaviours – an easy way to start off is to just think of anything your dog does which you like and then take the opportunity to reinforce those choices when your dog makes them.  Everything from waiting patiently rather than throwing themselves at the door to walking beside you instead of dragging you down the street, can benefit from this strategy.  Just remember to get in quickly, before your dog chooses to do something less desirable instead!

What behaviours does your dog offer that you can take the opportunity to capture and reinforce?

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