How To Get Compliance Without Food
Q: This question comes from one of my wonderful clients (shout out to Heather!! <3). She adopted an older dog recently who didn't have much training, but is the sweetest pup and quite smart! Leda picked up basic commands very quickly but seems to require a big pay day in order to perform. Heather asks - how do I get my dog to comply with commands without food in my hand?
A: The issue you are having with the food is very common and that is why it is important to phase out the food lure very quickly in training. We don't want to have to bribe the dog to behave! Now that Leda knows what the commands mean, you will teach her that just because you aren't holding food in your hand doesn't mean that she won't get a reward.
To start, prepare the food rewards and place them somewhere that you will have easy access when you need them. At the very beginning, it's ok if she sees the food, but as you progress it is better to be more sneaky about it so that she isn't just behaving when she sees food.
You can start with a very easy command, one that she is the most likely to respond to. A good one is usually to ask the dog to come over to you. When she comes to you, give her lots of praise and then - BAM!- a piece of cheese magically appears out of nowhere! Leda will think that's pretty cool. After she eats that piece, show her your empty hands, and then ask her to sit. If she does, huge praise reward and then make another piece of cheese magically appear out of nowhere. If she doesn't sit, you can try repeating the command a few more times, but don't overdo it. If you're not getting compliance after a few tries, end the session and try the whole routine again later.
It's handy to keep some treats within easy reach so that throughout the day, you can randomly surprise her with a reward for good behavior without her knowing that rewards are an option. The key here is to keep the dog guessing. Think about it like a slot machine - slot machines work on the principle of intermittent reinforcement. You never know when you're gonna win, but you know at some point you will, so you keep playing. That same principle is key in dog training, and that's the stage you're at with her now.
In addition to having the food out of sight, you can mix that practice up with letting her know you have the food, but not rewarding every single correct behavior. So instead of sit-reward-sit-reward and so on, the pattern is sit-sit-sit-reward-sit-sit-reward-sit-sit-sit-sit-reward etc...so you're keeping her guessing.
Remember too that food isn't the only reward that you can use to get compliance. Praise, affection, attention and toys can also be used (and should be incorporated as much as possible). You can also use life rewards, like getting to go outside, allowing her to go sniff something particularly enchanting, allowing her to chase a squirrel on a walk, having access to spaces in the home like the bed or sofa, etc. Determining what motivates your particular dog (other than food!) will be super helpful to you in the long term and provide you with lots of other options for rewards besides food.
I hope you find this information helpful and useful. If you have a question about dog training that you would like answered, please feel free to email me or send us a message on Facebook. Best woofs!
Christine Fasan is the head trainer and canine behaviorist at K9H. She specializes in German Shepherd Dogs and healing reactivity in dogs of all breeds. K9 Holistics offers dog training and behavior modification in St. Petersburg and throughout Pinellas County. We also offer pet care services including dog walking and pet sitting. Please contact Christine at firstname.lastname@example.org