Using Food to Reinforce Behavior

Dogs learn which behaviors “work” for them when those behaviors are followed by something gratifying to the animal.  Those actions are guaranteed repeats.  Food is a primary motivator for any animal who is interested in survival.  The deliberate use of food to reinforce behaviors that owners want as habits is highly effective.

The challenge is to ultimately use food to reinforce the best behavior performance and eliminate it as a contingency for attention and compliance.  At the end of the day, we have just ourselves as valued resources to our dogs. 

The Value of the Food Matters

The dog must eat several times daily, anyway, so using his kibble is a great way to start.  Reinforcing desired behaviors that the dog offers in the familiarity of the house results in increased frequency of those behaviors. 

At high arousal times, kibble may not be sufficiently valuable to maintain attention on the handler.  Leash walking and other outdoor activities may also require higher value food, such as chicken, cheese, or liverwurst.  Many a distracted dog can be redirected back to his handler with the use of higher value food to reinforce attention where standard kibble fails.

Work towards placing food in other spots besides on your person.  Dogs quickly zoom in on pockets and bait bags.

Fading the Food

A common error is to withdraw the use of food reinforcement too soon.  It takes time to truly train in behaviors and obedience cues.  If the food reinforcement goes “cold turkey”, the owner risks making the behavior extinct for lack of meaningful reinforcement.  Fading the food is a gradual process and varies depending on situation.

The more difficult it is for the dog to respond correctly, the more frequently the dog can receive a bite of food.  After a pattern is established, the food reinforcement can be decreased. 

Spin the Reinforcement Wheel

What motivates your dog besides food?  Ultimately the best performance earns the bite of food, but there are plenty of other ways to keep the dog connected, interested, and cooperative.  Play and games are great motivators, too.  Make a list of six activities, toys, and games that your dog enjoys and incorporate them into your reinforcement schedule.   

Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel   CPDT-KA, 2019 all rights reserved

Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC