Many gundog trainers resist using food rewards when training their gundogs. Until your retriever has realised the value of expressing her innate desire to retrieve and you, as a trainer, have taught her self control around the things that she wants, food is the most desirable and the most convenient reinforcer available in the early days. But simply using food to reward desired responses is only a small part of the picture…
Using food, toys and praise is all about building a bond association with a puppy. As the training progresses the dog works with you, not against you. You become a team working together, using motivation not force. This relationship makes training easy in terms of the dog understanding what you want and trying hard to offer you behaviour you like. Positive training is about the big picture, relationship, motivation and association – not treats. So we manage the emotional experience while training, making sure the dog enjoys the behaviour with no frustration or confusion so that the dog chooses that behaviour rather than something else. If the learning is negative, then the conditioned emotional response associated with it will impact the choice, especially if there is opportunity to avoid it.
This is why, so often, dogs resist returning to the handler, go out to the retrieve slowly, lag when heeling, delay picking up the retrieve, to name a few. If this is happening to your dog try and see what he or she is avoiding. Check what it was in your training that created this particular conditioned emotional response.
Another important point with the use of food is that it should never be used to manage behaviour such as a dog running in on a retrieve, or producing food to tempt the dog to come to you. Positive trainers use food to create a “trained response” to a cue. Just like traditional training, the dog needs to learn to respond to cues in increasingly distracting situations and this is often where trainers fail to take their training to the next level where the reliability of the “trained” or “conditioned” response to the cue is proofed. Once the response is on cue (or under stimulus control) producing food should no longer be necessary.
The “take home” message I’d like to convey here is that ultimately the value of the reinforcer whether it is sausage, liver bread, tug toys, balls or the opportunity to display a hard-wired motor pattern, is decided by the dog!