I get asked mtss is a lot.: “My dog's uninterested in food so, could it be okay to coach without treats?”

And “Can a dog learn without treats?”

The short response is yes!

I've a pretty good perspective on this topic when i trained dogs without food for over three decades.

I explained to those who were promoting the use of food in training, that “my dogs try to please me, not for bribes or treats”. Which “my dogs won't eat anyway while they are working.”

Which was perfectly true.

Indeed, one of my party ideas to silence treat training aficionados was to offer a treat to 1 of my spaniels while we lost cooperating, which she would take politely, then gently spit it out on the floor.

My view, and that i felt hers too, was that food was definitely for amateurs!

Dog training techniques without treats

So, as somebody who trained dogs without food for several years, I'm pretty clear that it's possible to train your dog without food.

Let's take a look at how that's done. There are numerous methods.

One strategy is to make use of other types of reinforcers. I am inclined to consider these as ‘activity rewards’

Activity rewards

We use the term ‘reinforcers’ for anything that causes a dog to repeat a behavior more often. If my give my dog a treat each time she sits, I'm reinforcing the sit with food. But reinforcers do not have to be edible.

You can train a dog instead, using activity rewards: toys and access to opportunities for example chasing a ball or running free outdoors.

Make no mistake. These types of activities can be hugely rewarding for a lot of dogs.

But there is a catch.

Activity reinforcers are very time consuming to manage and deliver.

If I throw a toy in my dog in exchange for every sit-stay – I can only fit 3 or 4 ten second sit-stays in a five minute training session. Because the rest of the time is adopted with throwing and retrieving toys.

Practice makes perfect

If I reinforce my sit-stays with food – delivered and consumed easily – I can fit maybe twenty sit stays within the same time period.

In just one or two weeks, my dog will have performed hundreds more sit-stays than his activity rewarded friends.

This extra practice can be quite helpful in developing reliable behaviors inside your dog.

The value in activity rewards

The real value of activity based reinforcers may come as the dog matures and his education progresses.

Later on in training, as each task we give the dog is more complex, a fairly time intensive reinforcer is neither here nor there. It's the task that can take up the bulk of the time

But in the beginning, each task we ask of the dog is brief and sweet. And the rewards need to match them. That's why using food in puppy training has become almost universal.

What about praise?

“But, but!” You say “my dog doesn't have activity rewards either. A quick pat or a kind word from use is all that is required!”

“And I can give my dog a pat as soon as giving him a goody.”

That also is true. There is however a catch here too!

Not all reinforcers are equal.

Different rewards have different value.

These things we call reinforcers are obviously rewards or activities which make the behaviors we like our dogs to carry out stronger and much more reliable.

That's exactly what a reinforcer is. It is anything that increases behavior.

The more highly a dog values a reward, the more powerful the reinforcing effect of this reward in training. And the more zinc heightens behavior.

Basic instincts

The most powerful reinforcers within the animal kingdom, are things that satisfy basic needs, for example hunger and thirst. We call these primary reinforcers.

Anything that satisfies powerful primitive urges such as sexual and predatory drives is also a powerful reinforcer

The bottom line is that nothing on this planet can motivate a dog as well as a primary reinforcer. And in all forms of animal training, primary reinforcers beat other reinforcers hands down for effectiveness as training aids.

And as you've probably guessed, praise and patting simply can't compete. This is where punishers come in

Correcting our dogs

It's correct that dog trainers all over the world happen to be training dogs successfully without food for generations.

And the way they get it done, is by correcting the dog when they get it wrong.

We have an article on correction: How To Correct A Puppy, that you might find helpful.

The term 'correction' in dog training is a euphemism for 'mild punishment' And punishers are the opposite of reinforcers. They diminish behavior.

Balanced training?

Sounds as if you need a balance of both reinforcers and punishers to coach a dog then doesn't it?

For quite a long time most trainers believed this to be real. But in the final twenty years, increasingly more trainers have moved across to force-free training.

And have abandoned the use of adding punishment to their canine training lessons. But why they have made this change? And does force-free training really work?

Why avoid corrections?

As we’ve seen, corrections are a mild type of punishment. And punishment can be very effective at diminishing unwanted behavior.

But, punishment includes disadvantages. Including a heightened chance of aggression even in which the punishment used is not painful or extreme.

Punishment also reduces learning speed and comprehension. Because as we all know from your schooldays, it’s difficult to think, let alone remember that which you are just taught, when you are fretting about avoiding punishment.

Most people agree that they would rather train their finest friend without punishment, provided that training works!

Force-free training?

Happily, force-free training is effective. And force-free trained dogs are now succeeding in every discipline. Even military and service dogs are actually trained this way.

Many canine training enthusiasts started by gradually crossing over, including some force free skills in their repertoire, and discarding harsher corrections. No-one is returning to that old methods.

The speed of this change is accelerating now as more studies reveal the downsides of coaching with punishment, so that as more trainers uncover the joys of force free training and push in the boundaries of the items is possible.

But what about dogs that can not be trained with food? That aren't thinking about employed by food?

My dog will not work for food

It's quite normal to hear people say “my dog will not work for food”. Just like my little Meg in the example above, many dogs won't eat when they're excited or distracted.

Meg was a lot more than 10 years old after i decided to revisit her aversion to eating in public places!

I did some clicker training together with her, and introduced distractions back gradually. She was soon working for food under all kinds of conditions and my spitting out trick was lost permanently.

All dogs have to eat

The simple the fact is that all dogs is useful for food since it is a principal reinforcer i.e. required for life. There aren't any exceptions.

If your dog isn't thinking about food during training, then the food isn't high value enough for your task, or the dog isn't hungry enough. Normally the latter.

And with the right techniques you can teach any dog to dedicate yourself food. We teach they within our Foundation Skills online training program.

Food not treats

A big source of confusion about this topic may be the use of the phrase 'training treats'.

We all use the term, but you're actually training together with your dog's food. Not treats. And i believe it's important to clarify that point.

Most puppies benefit from earning almost ALL their food in training. And many experts now persuade folks not to feed their puppies from the bowl at all.

So is it okay to train without food?

The short response is no. Not if you wish to avoid punishment.

This is a real problem with you.

The truth about “no treat dog training”

‘No treat dog training’ is like trying to train a dog with one hand tied behind your back.

It’s tempting to think you can adapt positive reinforcement training and simply replace the food part with praise and affection. But here’s the one thing.

There is not a single example will be able to consider anywhere, associated with a dog reaching a high standard of coaching in competition or like a companion without either the use of high value reinforcers, or the use of punishment.

So, if you wish to avoid punishment you have to learn how to train rich in value reinforcers.

A pat or kind word of praise simply isn't a strong enough reinforcer to alter a dog's behavior in the presence of any worthwhile alternative.

It might operate in your kitchen area, or back yard for a while. However it isn't going to work in real life where there are squirrels to chase.

Modern training

Fortunately modern training methods are effective and fun. There's no need to obtain left behind because you don't want to punish your pet.

I have no regrets about changing my methods and I’m confident you won’t either.

You'll find plenty of good trainers nowadays who offer force free classes and all the web based classes on this website are force-free

Give it a go. Grab few treats and a good training book or course. Enjoy your pet and have fun together!