How to Use Food Intelligently in Lure-Reward Dog Training

Based on Dr. Ian Dunbar’s lecture (of the same title). Only available on The All Access Pass at DunbarAcademy.com

Food is extremely useful when training a dog …

Food is simply unmatched for classical conditioning and is incredibly useful as both lures and rewards when teaching basic manners. 

… Unless it becomes a bribe

If you're not careful, however, food can become a bribe and the food's ability to influence your dog's behavior for the better will gradually deteriorate as your dog progressively ignores you and your food lures more and more. Resorting to smellier, tastier treats will only help temporarily. Instead, you need to phase out the use of food lures and make use of much more effective reinforcement schedules and life rewards.

Food is irreplaceable for classical conditioning

Food allows you to help your dog bond with you quickly and form positive associations with all sorts of things: other people (especially children and men), dogs, other animals, noises, objects and different environments. You can, and should, continue to use food everyday for classical conditioning throughout your dog's entire life.

People are using much too much food in obedience training

Many people misuse food during obedience training. People use food as a lure for much too long and they give food as a reward too often. As dogs grow older and less eager to immediately respond to our every request, it becomes important to avoid using food as both a lure and a reward simultaneously, or else the food will become a bribe. 

Bribing an otherwise unwilling dog to respond by luring it and rewarding it with food will quickly train your dog to only listen to you when you are holding food. This is easy to avoid by promptly phasing out food as lures, gradually phasing out the necessity of food as rewards, and eliminating the connection between the two.

Using food as a lure

The first step is to learn how to use food effectively as a lure. To do so, hold the food between your finger and thumb in front of your dog's nose. When the dog sniffs the food, move your hand and as the dog’s nose follows, you may lure the dog into different body positions, such as sit, down and stand.

From lure to hand signal to verbal command

Practice these three positions in a random order and your dog will start trying to anticipate the next position by watching your hand, making it easy and natural to move from luring the pup's nose, to giving simplified hand signals. Then the hand signals can be used to teach the meaning of spoken command words by first giving the verbal request and then using the hand signal.

Luring with an empty hand

Once you've taught your dog how to respond reliably to luring, you must quickly stop using the food as a lure. Simply put the food in your other hand, put that hand behind your back and lure with your empty hand. Pretend you're still holding a piece of food. If your empty hand smells of food, and looks like it's holding food, it's still a very effective lure — a hand lure (well on the way to becoming a hand signal).

Ask for more

Reduce the frequency with which you reward your dog with food. Start asking for more and more recalls and position changes for a single treat. When you do decide to give a piece of food, hold onto it for longer. The longer you hold onto the food, the longer the dog will stay and focus on you.

Don't reward every time

Stop rewarding your dog for every successful response. Why would you want to reward (and encourage) below-average responses? Only reward above-average responses. Progressively refine your criteria for what constitutes a response worthy of a food reward. Look for speed and style and consider the level of distraction, distance, etc. Especially reward when your dog responds promptly following a single request.

Resort to a food lure? Then don't give it as a reward

If you had to repeat a request, or you had to go up to your dog to get attention, or if you had to go all the way back to Square 1 and use a piece of food to get attention, your dog certainly hasn't earned a food reward. Instead, now that you have attention, put the food lure in your pocket, step back and ask and signal your dog to come and sit. Your dog is likely to respond quickly following a single request and if so, you may reward with food from your pocket. 

Put the food in your pocket

Now that you're rewarding less frequently, you can keep the food in your pocket. You'll only need a few pieces of easily accessible food for a good training session. Additionally, put food in out-of-reach hiding places in the areas where you train. If you reward your dog when you don't appear to have any food with you, your dog will learn that you have the ability to give food rewards at any time, and are always worth listening to, even when you're empty-handed.

 

Food as a distraction

Give the food rewards to a helper. Now the food is acting as a distraction and you'll have to be animated to get your dog's attention away from the other person. Once your dog comes and sits, say “Good Dog” as a cue for your helper to give a food reward to your dog. Your dog will quickly learn that it doesn't matter where the food is, the only way to get it is by listening to you.

Better responses deserve better rewards. The best deserve a jackpot!

On those occasions when your dog responds sufficiently well to earn a food reward, vary the number of food rewards for each response. For meeting minimal criteria, say “Thank You” and offer a single food reward. For better responses, praise enthusiastically and offer a couple of food rewards. And for the very best of best responses, let your dog know it hit the Jackpot!!! — verbally congratulate, smile and maybe dance a jig while offering 10 food rewards one after another, or a game of Fetch or Tug, or a walk, or cuddles on the couch.

Healthy treats

Put some regular kibble in a ziploc bag and sprinkle some freeze-dried liver powder into the bag and shake it all up. Now you have regular healthy kibble that smells extra delicious. This “enhanced” kibble is especially useful for children, men and strangers to give to your dog and as rewards for housetraining and teaching new exercises. Most commercial treats are “junk food” and best to avoid.

Super-charge your kibble

Your dog's regular kibble is an excellent lure and an effective reward. However, you can make kibble even more valuable by super-charging it as a secondary reinforcer. Pavlov's bell was a secondary reinforcer, with the power to cause positive emotions in his dogs because the bell always preceded and hence, predicted, food delivery. Similarly, kibble can become a secondary reinforcer, charged with the positive associations of whatever comes immediately afterwards. Make a habit of giving your dog a piece of kibble just before all enjoyable activities, such as, couch-time, playing games, attention and affection, sniffing, exploring, greeting other dogs and people, etc., and the kibble will become loaded with extra reward power.

Life-rewards

All of your dog’s favorite activities are invaluable rewards to use in training. For many dogs, life-rewards are much more valued than any food you can offer. It is essential to use your dog’s favorite activities as rewards for training, otherwise they will become distractions that work against training.

Turn distractions into rewards, or even lures

If something is distracting your dog while you're trying to train, you can usually use it as a reward, or a lure. If your dog ignores your commands while sniffing a patch of grass or playing with other dogs, once you've finally gotten their attention and the dog comes and sits, instruct your dog to resume sniffing the grass or playing with the other dogs as a reward. Repeat this process over and over. If your dog is playing with a stick or a leaf or a wood chip at the park, pick it up and use it as a lure. If they respond well, maybe offer it as a reward for excellence.

A tug toy is the best lure and reward

Food is an excellent lure and reward, but it's not the best. Toys are better, and the best toy of all is a tug toy. A properly used tug toy is unbeatable because it's so powerful and it's specific to your dog. Tennis balls and food are also excellent lures and rewards but they are likely to excite and lure other nearby dogs, which isn't always a good idea. Also, a tug toy is only fun when it's with you and so your dog happily comes and stays close and focused.

Teach your dog to love tug

If your dog doesn't naturally love tug, teach them to love it by empowering the Tug Toy as a super-mega-secondary reinforcer. First you need to learn how to make tug fun and safe and then, play a short game of tug before all of your dog's favorite activities.