If you are doing behavior work with your dog you need to consider why you give your dog treats – you may want to stop handing over food for no particular reason as a lifestyle choice. How much will your dog value special treats in the presence of some trigger when you are feeding him all the time for 100 reasons?

Some people use different values of food to get around this. So the dog eats treats all day long, but when the trigger comes out? The great food shows up!

That could work. Some dogs can figure that out for sure, but… why? Why are you feeding your dog all day long?   Most dogs do not require this past the basic puppy/early training phase.  Expectations should be set!  Basic manners should be a habit!  Once your dog is trained, cookies should be reinforcing specific things that you are asking for or they can be a part of structured training sessions, but sitting at your side and breathing does not rise to the level of earning a cookie.   Dogs can sit quietly at your side and breathe as a function of being a dog. They don’t need your help with that.

When you offer rewards for absolutely everything you are devaluing those cookies that actually matter – the ones you really want your dog to notice.  Think of it like this – if you have an employer that gives you a $100 bill a few times a year – you’ll notice it for sure. If you have an employer that randomly hands you hundred dollar bills throughout the day, every day…maybe not so much. Don’t water down your ability to reinforce by overusing it.

The same is true for classical conditioning.  If your dog is eating cookies before, during and after your session – it becomes challenging for any real associations to be made, whether conscious or not. Eating becomes the baseline. And not eating becomes…a punisher?  Interesting question.

I use food for a reason. If I’m doing a decent job, my dog can figure out exactly what every cookie is for.  That means that when I give my dogs a cookie it has value; they notice the cookie because it is clearly different from their baseline expectation.   Those cookies could be because we are working on something new, training behavior chains, unusual behavior expectations in public,  or management of something I’m not up to training.   But they are not random.   I can tell you for every cookie I hand over, “that cookie was for….”

I’ve been working on Brito’s reactivity for the last four months. We are at the point where he can quietly pass by chickens, horses, and random dogs without any reaction at all. I am super happy with his behavior! Good behavior is now becoming an expectation rather than a point of celebration.

I opted to train through his reactivity using the circle method rather than using food   My goal was to ensure that he was focused on the triggers (and his feelings about that), rather than eating (and his feelings about that). The last time I took him for a walk in a heavily dog populated area? He got exactly one cookie and it had nothing to do with his behavior around dogs. We were in a challenging off leash area, I called him, and he came instantly. I gave him a cookie to reinforce his lovely recall! I would imagine that cookie was memorable because it was the only one he got on the entire walk.

He received no cookies for passing 30 or 40 dogs –  it is the basic expectation.   The fact that he is out on a walk in the woods should be enough of a positive association with the presence of other dogs.  So while I could have been handing him cookies for not much of anything throughout our walk, it would have watered down the value of cookie that he truly did earn –  for the excellent recall.

My point in this article is not whether you choose to use food in behavior work.   Lots of methods work, and I don’t argue with success if the method is kind. But if you are using food, whether for behavior or for training, be aware that the sheer quantity of cookies your dog receives is going to impact the value of each one. So consider how you want your dog to perceive each cookie, and proceed accordingly.

You should be able to easily answer the question, “What was that cookie for?” for every cookie you hand over.  The goal is not to be stingy; there is no value in that. But mindless feeding is not the opposite of stingy! Mindless feeding is simply devaluing your reinforcer.    A very high rate of reinforcement when the dog earns each and every one? That’s just fine too. It depends what you’re doing.

Give some thought to why you give your dog cookies.   Are you teaching specific behaviors? Be generous! Are you classically conditioning an association with a very specific thing? Be generous in the presence of that thing and only at that time! Or are you simply feeding your dog because it’s become a habit, and you don’t have an alternative way to interact?

Rethink that.

On another note – cool stuff happening at FDSA!  Registration opens today for the August term and my leadership webinar runs on Thursday, August 1st.  If you struggle with how to handle your dog’s behavior in a variety of circumstances, from regular life to the dog show, I hope you’ll join that webinar and get some directions for your team. Here’s a short video trailer to give you a sense of the presentation.