How to Train Your Dog Without Food Treats – And When To Use Food

“Train dog without food treats”, is this even possible? Will my dog follow my command without a treat?

Training a dog with food treats is often seen as bribery and so many owners are wary of using treats in training…

This usually comes from the concern that if the dog is trained using food, it will only obey when the food is present. This is a valid concern – not because training with food is bad but because a lot of people don’t know how to phase the food out, and the dog becomes reliant on it. I actually train with food all the time and I love it! But I do see clients that struggle to wean their dog’s off the food and have the dog obey when the treat isn’t around.

Think of food treats like any tool used in training. We use it to help us to train the dog. Once the dog is trained in that skill, we no longer need it. What else counts as a tool?

How about the collar and leash – many that train without food use leash pressure.

How about your hands? Many people use their hands to physically put the dog into the position they want.

How about your house or back yard? We train in these areas before we risk letting our dog off lead in a public location. So even this is a training tool.

How about your voice? If you praise your dog for a job well done, your verbal praise is your reward tool in that situation.

All of these are valid tools to use in various situations depending on the dog, the owner and the circumstances. So don’t rule out the use of food completely. If you’re using food or any other training tool, think of it like training wheels – they help the dog learn and then come off when the dog has mastered the skill you’re training.

 

Why I DO Like To Use Food In Training

Like I mentioned, I do train with food often. I also use praise, touch, leash, collar, pressure and release, access to resources… You get the gist. I adapt to each dog and situation.

Food is an easy reward tool to use to teach new behaviours. You can have the dog follow the food around like a lure to move their body into the position you want (such as upwards and over their head to teach the sit position). After luring, we then reward with food only AFTER the dog has performed the skill we want. Training this way is fun for the dog and has them use their brain to figure out how to get the food rather than just being plonked into position.

So food is one tool that is a good option to teach new skills like obedience commands.

Training VS Manners

Now one thing I need to point out is that there is a difference between training a dog to DO something and having day to day manners around the home. The two definitely go hand in hand, however. You should definitely have a good foundation of obedience training to expect good manners around the home. But whether you train obedience commands with food or without, when it comes to manners around the home, you shouldn’t have to carry around cookies with you all day. And that’s where training without food is especially useful.

But I Don’t Want To Train With Food Ever At All

Ok, ok.

If you want to train without food treats at all, I encourage you to find something else that really motivates your dog that you can use as a reward through training. This can be a tug toy, a ball, a pat, praise or whatever your particular dog finds worth working for.

A reward depends on the individual dog. The dog has to want it to put in any effort for it. What a dog wants varies from dog to dog. Even if you’re using food, some dogs will work for kibble and others need something more appealing.

I don’t encourage you to train without any motivational reward at all. This means you would physically make the dog do the action and really, it’s no fun. I really believe training should be fun for both of you!

Ask yourself why you are feeling so against the use of food – is it because you believe your dog should work to please you? Are you worried about it being bribery? If you’re worried about it being a bribe, it’s all in how you use it. Remember, the top international champions in dog sports use lots of food in training but still get amazing results in the trial without a treat on them.

Thinking of rewards as a whole, think of it as payment. You may expect more of your worker (your dog) the more they learn but no one wants to work for someone just to please their boss.

Technically, there’s always some reason a dog does something other than “just to please you.” They either do it because they see something to gain from it, or they do it because the consequence of not doing it is worth avoiding.

How To Get Your Dog To Be Well Mannered Around The Home Without Food

So I think I’ve made my point. I’m a fan of using rewards in training, including food. But when it comes to manners around the house, there’s a whole lot you can achieve without food. Instead, you’re going to be using life rewards. This way, you can teach your dog that there is a rewarding benefit of listening to you in day to day life without setting up a training session or carrying around a toy or a treat.

What’s a Life Reward?

Think about all the things you do for your dog. All the things you give them, provide to them.

Let’s list them out.

  • Meals and other food
  • Water
  • Warmth
  • Shade
  • Shelter from the elements
  • Love and physical affection
  • Access to rooms of the house
  • Access to you
  • Verbal praise
  • Attention
  • Walks and outings
  • Games
  • Going outside
  • Coming inside
  • Access to the bed or other comfy furniture
  • A nice bed to sleep on of their own
  • Toys
  • Enrichment in their backyard – things to keep them busy

Look how much we give them for free! You can use just about any of these things as a reward for your dog in return for them cooperating with you.

For example – let’s say you have a dog that likes to sit on the couch with you, or on your lap. Why should a dog be able to help himself to that? In fact, the more freedom a dog gets, the more they can become bratty and disobedient.

Instead of allowing your dog to jump up onto the couch whenever he or she likes, try giving a simple command before then inviting the dog up. Make this the new rule for this privilege. Now see where else you can apply this in your day to day life with your dog.

For example:

  • Does your dog drag you through the door when leaving for a walk?
  • Barge through doorways going in and out?
  • Have food and toys laying around for whenever they feel like it?

Try adding some rules like a simple command before privileges and resources. This achieves two things:

  1. Your dog respects that you are the provider and carer, aka “the leader”
  2. You get to practice your obedience commands and your dog listening to you without setting aside large blocks of time to practice and without using food rewards all the time

So now you’ve read this far, you have homework! Look for opportunities that you can use life rewards with your dog and start asking more from your dog in return for all the things you give them.

Of course, to get a command happening before privileges and resources, your dog needs to know the command. This is where you need to teach the command separately first and then start using it in the way I just described. If your dog doesn’t know many commands, start with a simple sit and use that first. Then try adding a down command later. The more your dog knows, the more you can mix it up.

Happy training!

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Here’s what Kellie had to say:

“Holy cow – it worked!! I decided to try one of your tips this morning. I got all three of my dogs to sit AND stay until I stepped over the threshold of our outside door. They didn’t move until I released them! That has only ever happened if I’ve held a treat out for them to see (and it’s always a contest to see who will break first). This was with only the “treat” of going outside! WOW!!

Coming inside was a bit more work, until I actually opened the door (ie showed them the reward). Then – boom – all butts stayed on the ground! And I actually had the privilege of walking in our front door without a flood of dogs underneath my feet!! 

This is amazing!! 🙂

Thank you!”