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Positive Dog Parenting

by Rolan Tripp, DVM and Susan Tripp, MS/P

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Using Food to Remind and Reward


Using food as a reward is when you allow the dog to eat the food treat in exchange for a correct behavior executed quickly and correctly in response to your request. 

Using food as a paycheck

First, discover what foods your dog likes. Finding the right food is like identifying a paycheck that will provide sufficient motivation. Try a variety of foods such as boiled chicken, types of cheeses, hotdogs, liverwurst, cheerios, cat kibble, or frozen canned dog food that is firm enough to cut into small pieces. Individually wrapped slices of cheese can be divided into tiny pieces while still wrapped in plastic, minimizing waste and mess.
The goal is to keep treats small - the size of a cheerio - and tasty to avoid upsetting the nutritional balance of the daily consumption of food.

Guidelines for selecting food rewards

High protein treats may affect brain chemistry and help the dog relax. Use caution with treats that contain artificial colors or preservatives as some dogs will be allergic or sensitive to these ingredients. Ask your veterinarian for advice if your dog has allergies or is taking medicines, especially if your dog is taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI). Dog biscuits generally do not provide sufficient motivation and take too long to consume (an unwanted distraction) during a training session. However, for some dogs, treats that are too desirable can also be distracting. The dog may become too stimulated to think. Treats should be tiny enough to prevent the dog from getting too full, fat, or bored. If the dog stops responding to one kind of treat, try another type. Treats need to be less than 10% of the dog's daily ration of a well-balanced diet. Do not use chocolate as it can be toxic to dogs.

Using rewards effectively is an art

Rewarding dogs with food treats is an art. To prevent the dog from lunging for the food, keep the prepared treats in a little cup or plastic bag behind your back. Keep the hand that has the treat behind your back so that the dog does not focus on the food hand. You can then move that hand to teach the dog where to look such as moving the food next to your eyes, then smiling big if the dog gives you eye contact.

The food treat must be small enough that the dog's attention is not focused on a slab of food but rather your cues. Treats need to fit in a closed palm and not visible when held between the thumb and forefingers. (The dog will be able to smell the treat in your hand!) When presenting the dog with the treat, start by moving the back of your hand to the dog, then turn your wrist to open your hand.

When using food as a training tool, it is helpful if the dog is hungry to increase the dog's attention and motivation to learn. 

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