Treats, the clicker, and fooling the dog

Using food in dog training is a no-brainer to most modern, motivational trainers. Dogs

are highly motivated by food (they’re predators, after all!), it’s easy to use food

lures to manipulate them into various positions, the dog generally enjoys the training

more so is more motivated to work, the human finds it easier so is more inclined to

persevere, and over time the association between food goodies and the owner becomes

very strong so the dog/owner relationship tends to improve. (Dogs like people who give

them treats. People often like other people who give them chocolate!)

But many traditional trainers still object to the use of food in training. Nine times

out of ten, the reason for this is that they have only ever seen food being mis-used in

training. (And of course, a few still cling to the quaint notion that the dog should

do it “for love”. As Jean Donaldson points out in The Culture Clash, these are usually

trainers who are heavily reliant on some or other form of collar correction; in fact,

the dog’s primary motivation for working is avoiding pain. A few dogs will work

exclusively for praise and bonding, but most won’t. You may like your employer and

spend time outside of work with him or her, but that doesn’t mean you’re prepared to

work for free! Nothing strange here.)

Why are there still so many misconceptions around about how to train using food?

First of all, many people confuse the training process with the end result. The other

day, a friend of mine said she would prefer to use the Koehler method for teaching a

reliable drop at a distance “because you might not have your clicker handy and the dog

might be about to run under a bus, so how would you get his attention?” (Of course,

she might not have her choke or prong collar handy, either, particularly if the dog is

off the lead!)

There are two problems with her statement. Firstly, the clicker (or any other

conditioned reinforcer) is not an attention-getting device. It’s an event marker which

tells the dog he has just done something right, and that a treat, a game or some other

primary reinforcer is on its way.

And secondly, the clicker is a training tool like any other. Eventually, for any given

behaviour, the dog has to become independent of the training device, i.e. the drop at a

distance should be obeyed even if there isn’t a clicker (or a prong collar) within a

hundred miles.

The training progression for training a drop at a distance might look a bit like this

(broadly speaking):

1) train the dog to lie down, either by luring or capturing downs, and then clicking

and treating every time the dog does. (In the early stages of teaching something new,

we use a continuous schedule of reinforcement, which just means that the dog gets

reinforced every time it does the right thing.)

2) Depending on your requirements, you might use shaping techniques to get the dog

downing faster, straighter, folding back or sitting first. If you used a food lure,

you would also start fading this so the dog doesn’t need to see the food up front.

3) Once you’ve got the dog reliably offering you downs, you add the voice cue, e.g.

“down!” just as the dog starts to lie down. Gradually start saying “down!” earlier and

earlier. You would also stop clicking for downs which the dog offered without the cue.

4) Once the dog is doing the down the way you want it and it is pretty reliably on cue,

you would move to an intermittent schedule of reinforcement. We usually use a variable

ratio schedule, which simply means that you click and treat some of the time, but not

all of the time, and never in a pattern which the dog can work out. (N.B. Whenever you

click, you follow up with a treat – that’s the deal. But you don’t always click.)

Once you’ve reached this stage, the dog now knows that the voice cue “down!” means: if

I lie down, there’s a good chance that I’ll get a treat. He also knows that the

presence of the clicker and treats doesn’t guarantee a treat. What he still needs to

learn is that the absence of the clicker and treats doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t

get a treat, either. Some clicker trainers accomplish this by hiding clickers and

bowls of treats around the house so they can get to them quickly if the dog does

something they like or obeys a cue. My housekeeping isn’t up to this; if I hid some

bits of sausage in my CD drawer, I probably wouldn’t discover them again until they got

up and climbed out by themselves!

So what I do is install a second marker, or conditioned reinforcer, this one verbal.

(I call this phase ‘fooling the dog’.) I use a word/pronounciation combination that

I’m not likely to use in normal conversation, in my case, an eldritch screech of

“treeeeeeet!” I condition this slightly differently from the clicker: I chop up some

treats and hide them in the fridge (safest place!), and then while I have both dogs in

the kitchen I screech “treeeeeeet!” and then race to the fridge, open it and then give

them each a treeeeeeet, I mean a treat. I repeat this several times until they clearly

understand that “treeeeeeet!” means “race to the fridge and get a treat”, and then I

move around the house, into the garden and so on, screech “treeeeeeet!” and race for

the kitchen. Of course I could condition both dogs separately as well, and probably

should have, as when one does something deserving of a treat, the other one expects one


I can now use my verbal reinforcer to mark good behaviours. I normally only use this

with behaviours that are already partially trained and on cue, so in the case of a

down, I would say “down!” at random moments, and if I get a down, I screech

“treeeeeeet!” and race for the kitchen…well, you get the picture.

And then I start putting randomly cued behaviours on an intermittent schedule as well.

The net result is that the dog becomes a gambler. If I say “down!”, he knows that

there is a pretty good chance of him getting a treat if he complies, whether or not

there is a clicker and treats around. And variable ratio schedules have been shown to

be extremely successful in maintaining behaviour; the more care I put into this phase,

the more likely the dog is to persist in downing on cue, even in the absence of a


5) I then generalize, or proof, the dog’s down by asking him to down under

circumstances of increasingly high distraction – in the garden, in the street when it’s

quiet, in the street with another dog at a distance, in the street with another dog a

bit closer, and so on. At this stage, I expect his down to fall apart a bit, and I

simply re-teach under the new conditions. While I’m re-teaching, I go back to the

clicker and a continuous schedule (every correct down gets a click and treat) and as

soon as he’s got it, I go back to intermittent reinforcement at that level of

distraction. This might sound laborious, and it is at first, but the more the dog

learns and the more different conditions you proof under, the faster the proofing goes.

Each successive situation is easier, and so is each new behaviour!

6) I’m now in a position to start adding distance and time (which both simply involve

delaying the click until I have the distance and duration that I want). I might start

by putting the dog on a lead, doing some downs close to me, then taking a step back and

doing some more, then taking another step back and doing a few more, and so on (it

helps a lot if your dog can sit and stand on cue as well!) Again, this is something

new to the dog, so I go back to clicking and treating for every correct response, and

only move to intermittent reinforcement when the dog is reliable at a particular


I increase the distance little by little, and as I start working at fairly long

distances, I might use a tie-out and attach the dog to a fence-post or pillar. For

each correct down I would click and throw the treat within reach.

Eventually I would move to doing this off the lead, and again, I would go back to a

short distance and increase it gradually. I would also need to teach the dog to down

in motion.

The end result – the fully-trained behaviour – would be a drop at a distance which I

would only need to reinforce the dog for occasionally, and which would be pretty

reliable regardless of whether I had a clicker handy, assuming I had done a good job.

Now I’m not trying to suggest that this is an easy or basic behaviour to train – far

from it. It’s one of the more difficult things in the dog trainer’s repertoire. And

I’m also not suggesting that you allow your dog to wander around without a leash in

potentially dangerous situations! But the point here was that one shouldn’t confuse

the training process with the end result, and this is something that critics of reward

-based training often do. (They also often take shortcuts and end up punishing the dog

for non-compliance at a level he hasn’t been proofed at yet, but that’ll have to wait

for another article!).

So to rephrase what we’ve said so far: when teaching the dog to do something new, you

use treats almost constantly. As the dog’s knowledge and experience increases, the

food rewards become intermittent and ultimately it shouldn’t be necessary for you to

have a clicker and treats on you in order to get compliance.

You should, of course, continue to reinforce occasionally even for well-known


Another area of confusion is the difference between a lure/bribe and a reinforcer. We

often use food lures to teach the dog something new or to get him into a new position,

but we make a point of fading (gradually getting rid of) these as soon as possible.

Why is that?

Well, luring really does make the dog dependent on seeing the food up front. I’ll sit

if you wave a treat over my head so my nose goes in the air, but if you don’t show me

the treat first, then no way!

The problem with a lure is that it comes before the behaviour we want. First the dog

sees the lure and then he does the sit. And for many people who experiment with food

when teaching their dogs tricks, that’s as far as it gets. (And for many conventional

trainers, that’s the extent of their experience in using food to train!)

A reinforcer, on the other hand comes after the behaviour we want. First you sit and

then I give you the treat. In other words, by the time the food is produced, the dog

has already done what you wanted him to. A totally different training bargain – and

the one on which all operant training techniques are based.

A third area of dispute is the idea that if you use food in training, your dog will be

more inclined to beg at table or when you’re eating. Well, if you give him food from

the table or when you’re eating, yes, of course he will, but this is a training

problem, not a failing of food training. If you don’t want the dog to beg, then never,

and I mean never feed him from the table, and never share your snacks with him. In

fact, if he learns that he gets treats when you’re training him, but never when you’re

eating, he will if anything be less likely to beg (dogs are great at making this sort

of distinction). You get what you reinforce. If you don’t want your dog to beg, don’t

reinforce him for begging.

A fourth, and final ‘problem’ with food training is that the treats are bad for your

dog and he might get fat. This is the only one which actually has any validity, but

it’s certainly not insurmountable. Most of us, myself included, just don’t get to

spend enough time training to make this a serious issue, but if your dog has a tendency

to pick up weight, then go for high-taste, low-fat treats (baked liver treats are

good), and cut down his meal rations. There’s a very good case to be made for getting

the dog to work for at least half his food. Vary the treats as much as possible so he

doesn’t get an overdose (or underdose) of any particular ingredient. Cut your treats

up as small as possible and give one (not a handful) when you click. And never give

your dog chocolate, especially expensive chocolate. It contains theobromine, which is

toxic to dogs and can be fatal.

Until next time, all the best, and above all, have fun!

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