How To Train Your Dog Without Food Treats

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Every now and again I have clients that are wary of using treats to train their dog because they’re concerned that they will become reliant on treats and that their dog will only co-operate if treats are present. They also feel like they are having to bribe their dog. This is a valid point, especially when you consider it is a trap many dog owners fall into. However, the problem isn’t training your dog using treats, it’s not knowing how to phase treats out once the behaviour has been successfully taught.

Teaching & Proofing

Dog obedience training basically falls into two categories: teaching and proofing. Teaching is where you teach your dog a behaviour or movement and attach a word (command/cue) to that movement so that you can ask for it on request. Proofing is when you take that previously taught command/cue and practise/re-teach it in different locations and around distractions. If you want to teach your dog to Sit, luring the shape of a Sit by having them follow a treat with their nose is likely to be faster than just saying Sit over and over until they happen to Sit, thus allowing you to offer your alternative reward i.e. opening the back door. Once your dog understands Sit though, you can switch the treat reward for something else. In fact, if used correctly, treats should merely become a form of payment, and not something that is required to elicit the behaviour. You could of course use other forms of payment i.e. praise, affection, access to outdoors etc.


Why does my dog need payment? Shouldn’t they just do it because I say so?

Well, some dogs are super-keen to please and some others, not so much! Either way, if they perform a behaviour and it benefits them they are more likely to perform it again. If they perform a behaviour and it doesn’t benefit them (i.e. you don’t pay them somehow – treats, affection, praise etc.) then they are much less likely to be inclined to repeat it again later (unless of course you prefer to ‘fine’ them, in which case they will be working to avoid the punishment instead of working to gain reward/payment).

The problem isn’t training your dog using treats, it’s not knowing how to phase treats out once the behaviour has been successfully taught.

Let’s talk about their salary!

So how much are you going to pay your dog? And what are you going to pay your dog with? Treats? Or something else? You could use anything your dog desires, but for best results make sure it isn’t freely available the rest of the time. If someone gave you £20 notes, on and off throughout the day for doing nothing, would you be inclined to go to work?!! Probably not.

You could use:

  • Interaction/Access to you
  • Access to outdoors
  • Play
  • Toys
  • Chew items
  • Praise
  • Love/Physical affection
  • Access to rooms in your house
  • Games
  • Walks
  • Coming inside
  • Enrichment activities
  • Anything else your dog particularly likes

All of these can replace treats in dog training and are commonly known as ‘life rewards’. You can use them all day, throughout the day and they’ll get your dog used to listening to you super-good.


So why do so many people and trainers use food then?

I, like many other dog trainers use food initially because it’s easy to use. You can lure dogs to perform the behaviour you’re teaching because you can easily move the treat around. The trick is to say your new command (e.g. Sit), wait ½ second, then lure the Sit. As long as you don’t overlap the spoken command and the lure, with practice your dog will anticipate the lure and perform the command in the ½ second gap you left between the spoken command and the lure. Sounds easy, right? Give it a go. You may be surprised how many times you mess up! Once your dog can perform the behaviour because they anticipate the reward, even though they can’t see it, you can begin to replace it with different rewards. Personally, I like to keep food in the mix so my dogs think that a food reward is always a possibility.


Training vs Manners

There is a big difference between training a dog to do something (e.g. obedience) and training a dog not to do something, and that is where ‘life rewards’ come in very handy. If you don’t control those rewards (‘resources’ in dog training parlance), then you’ll likely to need to walk around with a pocket full of food all day.

“Give me an example.”

Ok. Well, why not ask your dog to Sit by the door before you let them out or go out for a walk. If they break their Sit when you open the door, block it or shut it until you can open the door and have them wait to be released. Not only does this improve your dog’s listening skills and impulse control, it also affects your dog’s expectations regarding who makes important decisions. Using simple life rewards will have a hugely beneficial impact on your dog’s manners, obedience and feeling of well-being. After all, who doesn’t like to feel that someone in charge has got their back :-)

Why not try it with other things. Don’t let them automatically jump on the couch or on you. Have them do something to earn it. It could be something as simple as a Sit, Down or Paw, or perhaps a trick they know. Mix it up and have fun.


Happy training!


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