Question: I have an extremely food motivated dog who is easy to train, but only “works for food”. I’ve tried to wean him off of treats and replace with praise, but he shuts down quickly when he knows I don’t have a food reward for him. He does follow basic commands consistently, but not his tricks. Advice?
Answer: Great question! This is a very common issue. You want your dog to perform the requested behavior BEFORE showing the food, otherwise it becomes a bribe rather than a reward. An easy way to do this is with marker training. You can use a verbal marker (like the word “Yes” or “Good”) or a clicker. In this example, let’s assume you are using a clicker. First, do not ask your dog to do anything. Simply click and present a tiny bit of food. Repeat about 20-30 times – click, food. click, food. This is to pair the click with the food, so the click takes on a meaning (ie food). Next, make sure you have no food in your hands. Ask your dog to do something very simple (like sit). As soon as he sits, click. The click means “yes, that sit you just did is what I want. Now you can have food”. And treat. Repeat several times. Gradually, move onto more challenging behaviors. Once he gets it, and will perform the requested behavior really reliably with no food in your hand, it is time to wean out the treats. At first, you clicked and rewarded for 100% of the behaviors. Gradually, click and reward for only 80% (ie he gets clicked and rewarded for 8 out of 10 sits. The other 2, you simply say “good boy”). When he gets really good at that, decrease to 70% or 60% (click and reward for 7 or 6 out of 10 sit, the other 4 say “good boy”) and so on. Good luck!
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