If you've ever searched social media and google for help with your reactive dog you'll likely stepped right into the dog professional's hornet nest of arguments, leaving you feeling more confused than ever - which tools and methods to use, which to avoid.. you couldn't get a wider range of opinions. And one of these tools - loved by some and hated by others - is the use of food when you train your reactive dog. So let me shed some light on the use of food when helping with reactivity, why I think that it is an amazing tool but also which pitfalls to avoid when you use it.
Let me say this first: Yes, in my opinion and experience, you should be using food to work with your reactive dog, in fact you should use plenty of it and ideally the stuff that your dog really loves.
This is because as a animal welfare centered trainer I not only care about effectively creating change for you and for your dog - I also very much care that we create this change in a way that makes both of you feel good. And food can be powerful to help your dog feel better about their triggers, create an emotional shift to the positive, and motivate them to participate in the process.
But, there are a few things that you'll want to consider when you're using food. Used the wrong way it can be ineffective (at best) or even make things worse.
So here are 3 mistakes you want to avoid when using food to help your dog stop barking, lunging and growling at other dogs, so that it doesn't backfire.
Mistake 1: Not considering your dog's motivation for the barking and lunging
Sometimes we use food and forget about the underlying reason of why your dog behaves the way she does. It's a poor use of food when we end up ignoring what your dog's needs are, and what the dog intended with their behavior in the first place.
For example, let's say your dog is afraid of other dogs and they are barking, lunging and growling to create space from the dogs they are seeing. Then yes, we can use food to help your dog feel differently about other dogs (and not have a reason anymore for their loud outbursts). But, from an empathic and welfare perspective, we really have to consider that your dog doesn't want to be around other dogs and that distance to the other dog is what they're really after. This influences our training set up, but also the goals that we set out to achieve.
By using food in your dog's behavior change plan we are very likely successful at making your walks fun and less stressful again, and reducing the number and intensity of reactive behaviors, but your dog might never be happy in a dog park. Coming to terms with this and accepting that there's a limitation of how much food (and training in general) can overcome this worry about other dogs, is an important part of helping your dog successfully and in a respectful way.
Mistake 2: Using food to bribe your dog into situations they don't like.
We need to limit the use of food as a bribe, or as a tool to get your dog into situations that they end up feeling negatively about.
So sometimes when our dogs are fearful of something (or someone), and they are trying to avoid it, we might pull out food to get them closer to whatever is scaring them. While this is usually done with the best intention in mind, this can badly backfire. Your dog may remain scared, or even lose trust in you or the situation. They may eat the food and then find themselves in situation they can't cope with, sometimes leading to a greater risk for aggressive behavior.
Your best bet is to learn the subtle body language signals that your dog shows when they start to feel uncomfortable (e.g. white of eye visible, yawning, lip licking, looking or turning away), move further away from the scary thing and start working from there. And then, yes, you can use food to try and help your dog.
Mistake 3: Teaching your dog that food predicts dogs (or other triggers)
Another aspect that I often see done wrong is that we're using food at the wrong time, especially when we're working on a training protocol. You're out on a walk, you see another dog and you get treats ready before your dog has noticed the other dog.
What your dog might learn here is that when you take treats from your treat pouch (or worse: your very noisy plastic bag) there must be another dog around, and they start scanning the environment (and in fact, many of my clients will tell me that this is true for their dog).
This will not only be an ineffective way of using food in training, but it might even lead to your dog refusing to eat those specific treats (or even food more generally) especially if the situation turns out stressful enough. In their mind, food now predicts bad things to happen, so they rather not eat.
For effective training, and to avoid this pitfall, make sure that your dog perceives (i.e. sees or hears, sometimes smells) the other dog first before you pull out your treats. The same is true for any other trigger. Only then will you see a long-lasting change to your dog's behavior. This is why we spend a lot of time in our reactivity program to practice good training skills.
If you're using food to help your reactive dog you're on the right path, but you must make sure to use it correctly
While food shouldn't be the only tool in your reactive dog training toolbox, it usually helps a lot in our effort to change your dog's behavior! You'll just want to make sure that you use it effectively by 1) also considering your dog's needs, 2) not tricking your dog into situations that they can't cope with, and 3) by making sure that (in their mind) your treats don't predict triggers to appear.
How about you? Have you used treats before in training your reactive dog, and did it work? Which obstacles did you run into? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your story, I'm genuinely interested in hearing from you!