top of page

"But I Never Had to Give My Other Dog Treats!"

This is sometimes my client's response when I explain that we'll be using food as the primary motivator during our training. They're baffled and maybe frustrated because they don't want to use food, and they think that they don't have to because one of their old dogs that is no longer with them never required treats for training. Usually upon further digging and information gathering I'm able to ascertain that one of the reasons below is why it may have seemed that way (that their dog was magical and needed little motivation!).

Want the TLDR (too long, didn't read) for this post? It's this: if you want your dog's behavior to change, you HAVE to have something that motivates them. Period. The end. we get to choose whether we use the stick or the carrot. Choosing the stick has potential fallout and emotional side effects for our dogs, so I will choose the carrot every single time.

Beagle dog in sit up position

1) Your other dog was that unicorn dog, that mystical being: a dog that works for praise and pets. They are out there, dogs who are motivated by praise and physical attention, but they are FAR FAR rarer than we have been led to believe (thanks Lassie!), and in my experience it's not really possible to turn your dog into one if they aren't born this way. These dogs who work for praise tend to be breeds that are bred for companionship and to work in cooperation with their people; the gun dogs like labradors and golden retrievers and some herding breeds like border collies (AKA the workaholics of the dog world) come to mind, but just having a certain breed isn't enough. I've known plenty of labs, Goldens, and border collies who could give a flying rat's behind about your praise and pets when something else is in the environment, but will happily work for food.

2) You used something else the dog liked. Did your golden retriever have a perfect off leash recall at the park every time growing up? Did you... have tennis balls in your pocket?!?! If so, you used what the dog found motivating to train, which is good! It wasn't food, but you were absolutely reinforcing the behavior with the toy. Using toys as reinforcers is absolutely possible if your dog is crazy about fetch or tug, HOWEVER it can slow down your training sessions (it's much quicker to get 10 repetitions of sit to down using food then it is during fetch when there's basically a mini play break between each rep) and not all dogs care about toys. I've met plenty of dogs who don't find toys exciting enough to work for, but I've never met a dog who won't work for food of some kind. For some reason we humans think using toys is more virtuous or inherently better than using food, and I just don't get it!

Tan dog lying in the sun