Dream Dog Blog

"When can I stop using food?" is a question "treat-slinging weenie" trainers get asked a lot. So much so that I blogged about it here a while ago: Clicker Training Works Okay, But When Can I Stop Using Food?

Recently, I was asked to clarify when and how to phase out food for basic training accomplishments. Hence this blog post.

Some people don't bother to phase out the food because they don't see any reason to. There's really nothing wrong with carrying treats around and "paying" your dog for a job well done as it happens. This is especially true when working with dogs with reactivity or aggression issues. These dogs may need the extra motivation food gives to be able to maintain control in the presence of their "triggers" (other dogs, strangers, etc.). Then there's the added bonuses: food works to countercondition the dog's emotional response (changing "Oh no! another Dog!" to "Another dog! Food opportunities!") and eating often has natural calming effects.

For basic training, I use food because it's a great reward (reinforcer) with a lot of benefits, including:

  • Dogs need food to survive so they have a built-in desire to work for food.

  • It's fast so you can do a lot of repetitions in a little bit of time (a pea-sized treat is gone in less than a second, whereas even a quick game of tug takes longer).

  • You can use a food treat as a lure -- the dog follows the food (e.g. into a "sit" position if you use the food like a magnet to bring your dog's nose up and back -- the back end of the dog usually responds by going down) and then gets the treat when they're in the right position. (Note: you should quickly fade the lure so the dog's doing the behavior without the treat lure, but that deserves a discussion all its own.)

  • You can easily "feed for position" -- if you're doing a lot of quick repetitions of "Sit," for example, you mark the sit (with a click or a verbal "Yes!" or "Yip!") and then toss a pea-sized treat onto the floor to encourage the dog to get up to get the food. Then you can cue the "Sit" again right away. Result: 15 repetitions of "sit" in a minute, and you've just done a LOT of training in a tiny amount of time with a tiny amount of food. If you're working on the duration of "Sit," you "feed for position" by delivering the treat directly to the dog while they're still sitting.

  • You can use a variety of foods for different results. High-value food (stuff your dog goes ga-ga over) can cut through a lot of distractions, making it possible for your dog to perform in distracting or stressful environments. It can also encourage top-notch performance -- really fast recalls, prompt sits, etc. Low-value food (often including your dog's kibble if you feed dry food) is great for rewarding easy behaviors, especially when you don't want the dog so focused on the food that he's not really learning what you're trying to teach. Plus using a variety of different food treats can help keep the dog from getting bored with "the same-old same-old."


For those who don't want to rely on food (for whatever reason), or who need to phase out food because it's not used in competition or their dog's on a special diet that makes using food more difficult (people feeding their dogs on the BARF diet don't want to carry "raw & meaty bones" around with them everywhere!), food is best used when first teaching a behavior. Once the behavior is "fluent" (it happens promptly on cue and the dog does it well each time), you can phase out the food in a number of ways.

  • For "duration" behaviors (like sit-stays or down-stays), there will be a natural phasing out as you're asking the dog for longer durations. So when first teaching a down-stay, you'll "pay" the dog for every 2-3 seconds of down-stay. That quickly gets stretched into 10-second down-stays, then 20-second down-stays, and so on, until your dog's staying for several minutes (or however long a down-stay you need) in return for a single treat.

  • Once a behavior is fluent, you can ask for 2-3 behaviors in a row before "paying" your dog with a treat. You can also "mix and match" behaviors, for example asking for "Sit" and then "Touch" (dog touching nose to your hand or to another target), then "Sit" again before saying "Yes!" and feeding a treat. Likewise, when you cue a complex behavior "chain" (several behaviors in a row, that are done in continuous motion) such as "Recycle!" (take this junk mail from my hand, trot over to the paper recycling bin, drop the junk mail in) the treat comes at the end. Of course you have to train each behavior separately and also teach the dog the proper sequence in the chain... but then you only reinforce after the dog's performed the entire chain.

  • For many trained behaviors, use "life rewards" instead of food. These include "sit before we go through the door" (being released to go through the door is the reward for the sit), "walk on a loose leash before you go sniff that really interesting tree" (the "go sniff!" cue gives the dog permission to stop and sniff, reinforcing the loose leash walking by your side), and the very important "come to me even though you're playing with another dog and I'll let you go back to play with that other dog" ("Come!" --> "Good Dog! Go Play!"). You use what the dog really wants to be doing anyway as a reward for doing what you ask.

  • For teaching impulse control and "on/off switches" (Go Wild/Freeze game), play is a great reinforcer! A game of Tug of War is the reinforcement for the "Take!" cue. Say "Take!" and offer the tug toy, followed by 10-12 seconds of tugging before you either let the dog win -- who wants to play if they never win?!? -- or asking the dog to "Give!" before saying "Take!" and getting back to the game.

  • You can also switch to a "variable reinforcement schedule." In simple terms, this means you only reinforce the behavior some of the time rather than all of the time. This can actually strengthen behavior, as Casino owners know very well: video slot machines variably reinforce you when you push the Play button. You can further improve behavior by reinforcing the best responses to your cues with food or life rewards while still marking the average behavior with a "good dog."

  • And then here's the mind-blowing part: when you've used a lot of reinforcement (food and play and other "life rewards") to train a behavior until it's fluent and reliable (the dog does it well and every time you ask), you can then use that behavior as a reward for other, less well trained behaviors! This is due to the "Premack Principle." Simply stated, the Premack Principle says that more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors. With a strong "reinforcement history" (the dog has been reinforced a lot for that particular behavior, in many different circumstances) the behavior becomes intrinsically rewarding for the dog. Start with the dog's "default" behavior -- what the dog will do when he's not sure what else he should do. The "default" behavior will often be the first behavior you teach, such as "Sit." Or it will be the one you practiced the most (assuming you used lots of high-value reinforcers). The more behaviors you build to fluency & reliability, the more behaviors you can cue to reinforce the behaviors you're still working on!

It's also important to remember that even when fading food, you shouldn't fade rewards! After all, how would you feel if your boss cut your pay every time you got good at a specific aspect of your job?

The good news is that your dog will find your praise and your look of pride and happiness rewarding, especially after you've built strong reinforcement histories through the use of food and play and other life rewards. Your dog really will begin working for you -- but only if you're generous with your feedback that lets your dog know "Well done!" Never take your dog's behavior for granted, and always show that you appreciate his cooperation!



Paul and I took the afternoon off, loaded the dogs in the 4Runner and headed out to Bare Cove Park. They have a great set of dog rules for the park. Since most people actually follow the rules, the dogs you're likely to meet at Bare Cove are relatively well behaved and fairly social towards other dogs. Plus most owners either do have good control over their dogs, or they keep them on leash.

Brandy, as a "recovering reactive dog," is not the best behaved dog in the park, but at least I can take her there now without (usually) embarrassing myself! Likewise with Nico, our "recovering fearful dog."

We kept the dogs on leash to start, and chose a little-used "back" path rather than going down the main thoroughfare from the parking lot. With no one else in sight, we took the leashes off. Next thing we know, Brandy has found a really mucky swamp, and Nico's barrelled down the slope to join her. Yuck!

So back on leash for the two of them (especially since both were being just a wee bit slow in responding to my recall!). Obviously the recall cue needs proofing in unfamiliar areas. It's pretty reliable in our usual haunts but Bare Cove Park, which is a real treat for them, held too many competing allures.

So we walked two slimy but happy dogs along the path until we got to the cove part of Bare Cove Park.

brandynicocoveThere, the dogs happily obliged us by wading in the water, washing most of the swamp muck off (but not all, as we discovered when we got home!).

Paul and I had stopped by D'Angelo's for a couple of subs and chips for a "picnic lunch." So we sat down on the beach to eat lunch while watching the dogs play.

Except they didn't play. Instead, they stood right in front of us, staring at our food, with Brandy (of course!) adding some drool to the mix. Every now and then they'd lope down to the water (with some encouragement from us) and then come back up and drip all over us.

brandynicobeachIt's our own fault, of course. All too often we give them a little snack while we're eating, or the last bite of whatever we have since they're so cute and loveable.... and of course they're the pre-wash cycle for the dishwasher. (Did I admit that in public? Horrors!)

Some day I may even decide to tackle that particular problem ("begging" by standing close and drooling). There's an easy fix: stop giving them any food when you're eating or shortly thereafter. Within a week they should give up. Not sure the people could hold out that long, though, it's a long-held habit we're trying to break!

Anyhow, I used the "quick fix" of tossing treats into the grass around us for a "treasure hunt." With a couple of refresher tosses, that bought us a bit of space while we ate our lunch.

Then off we went back toward the parking lot. Nico was holding up well, dragging his back toes a bit and looking a little wobbly now and then but not trembling with weakness and he didn't "wipe out" the entire time we were in the park. (Thanks in great part to Julie Robitaille, who gave him a massage yesterday!) I think the break by the water helped, even though he wasn't exactly resting while we were there. Next time I'll bring their blankets to lie on!

The dogs were still offleash, and as we headed back toward the main thoroughfare I called to them. Whoops! Brandy saw another dog and went racing over to say "Hi!" While I'm no longer afraid she'll get into fights every time she tries to greet a dog (or vice versa), she's rude enough in her approach to other dogs that it's embarrassing to me. So there I was, jogging towards where my dog was rather rudely (as in "in your face") greeting another dog, calling out "Brandy! Leave that nice dog alone!" Nico, meanwhile, had actually come back when called (maybe he's not getting deaf in his old age after all?) and was standing near Paul.

Amazingly, Brandy broke off her greeting with the other dog and came to me. I said something about "Good girl! now you leave that really well behaved dog alone!" (The dog had stood his ground when Brandy so rudely intruded in his space, looking a bit uncomfortable but being polite about it.) The dog's owner laughed and called out "I wish he was that well behaved!" (or something to that effect). I called back that I thought he was a very good dog for handling a rude dog so well!

Once Brandy was back with me, I put her on leash again. But it probably wasn't necessary: she'd already turned her attention to the next interesting thing: crickets! There were dozens of crickets jumping and flying all over the little field we were in. Brandy watched them with amazement and then started trying to pounce on them. Paul got his phone out again to take some more pictures, but Brandy had lost interest again -- mostly because a couple of people with several dogs were going by.

bruschiMost of the dogs were small and stuck close to their people, but one large lab mix came up to say "Hi!" Unlike Brandy's full-tilt head-on race to say "Hi!" to the previous dog, this dog was very polite and proper about his greeting. Paul got a picture of Brandy and Nico with this dog. (His name is "Bruschi" -- "Brewsky," after the New England Patriot member Tedy Bruschi.)

After a few moments of polite greetings (even Brandy can be polite now and then!) Bruschi trotted off after his people. Paul and Brandy and Nico and I followed.

At one point, I saw a long-haired german shepherd up ahead and took Brandy off to the side of the road to start using a higher rate of reinforcement (clicking and treating for good behavior). I even took out the string cheese. Why? Because Brandy tends to have more problems ignoring German Shepherds -- especially long-haired GSDs -- than other breeds. At this point it could be a chicken-and-egg thing -- do I need to up the rate of reinforcement because she's more sensitive to GSDs, or is she responding to my reaction to the sight of a GSD?

So I'm clicking & feeding Brandy for being really good and looking at the GSD and back to me, or just looking at me, while they go by. Not a peep out of her, although she's more interested in the GSD than in any other dog she'd met so far.

And then the GSD's owner asks, "Does that clicker work well?"

My response, of course, was "Yes, very well!" At which point Brandy decided to interject her own opinion on the matter with a growl, bark, and lunge towards the GSD.

Talk about embarrassing!

I thought about saying "For example, without the clicker this dog would bark & lunge at every dog, not just yours...." but realized it was a lost cause at that point and chose to make a graceful exit instead.

The rest of the walk was a bit of a blur, mostly because I was replaying Brandy's little "explosion" in my mind. I remember a very polite Rhodesian Ridgeback who greeted Brandy quickly and then went on her way (following her person), which Brandy handled very well. And also a woman with two well-behaved dogs off leash and a third dog on-leash. I could see from a distance that the woman wasn't at all confident that the dog on leash would mind well, she kept "correcting" him verbally and with a jerk on the leash as he tried to get up from a sit. Something about the scene told me the dog was reactive toward other dogs, so I upped the rate of reinforcement with Brandy as we approached. Brandy was excellent, able to focus on me without totally ignoring the other dog, who was now lunging & barking a bit (gee, just like Brandy had just a while before!). The woman mentioned that it wasn't her dog, and she hadn't seen him act that way before. I said something about if his owners needed some help with him, my website was yourdreamdog.com -- that I worked with reactive dogs. Meanwhile Brandy's right by my side, happily chowing down on sticky string cheese crumbs. At least in this situation she wasn't an embarrassment to me at all.

Then we were back at the car. Did the dogs have a good time? I'll let Nico answer that!





 I just sent a letter to Merial titled "Please don't promote Cesar Millan's controversial training techniques."

 This was in response to an email my veterinarian, Dr. Susan Harrington of the Randolph Animal Hospital, forwarded to me. It was the latest promotion from Merial for their "Frontline"® and "HeartGard"® products. The trouble was, it was cross-promoting Cesar Millan, his "The Dog Whisperer" television show, and his behavior and training video. We'd just discussed the problems we'd been seeing crop up when well-meaning dog owners attempt to use Cesar Millan's techniques on their own dogs, and Sue had asked me to provide some information to help her educate her clients as to why "dominance-based" training was not the way to go when training their dogs.

At the same time, I heard about the Merial promotion through the positive trainers' grapevine. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior had already written a letter to Dr. Scott Line, a veterinary behaviorist working for Merial. You can see their letter here: http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=90029578219&ref=mf

So here's the text of the email I sent.


Dear Sir:

I'm one of Merial's customers, in that I purchase both Frontline and Heartgard through my local veterinarian.

I am also a Certified Pet Dog Trainer who works with pet dogs and their owners to address behavior problems from a simple lack of manners to aggression.

As a dog trainer and behavior consultant, I get asked a lot of non-behavior-related questions, including recommendations for flea, tick, and heartworm prevention problems. Since I use Frontline and Heartgard myself, those are what I recommend to clients and friends.

So I'm deeply disturbed to hear that Merial's latest promotion for these products will also be promoting Cesar Millan's misguided, controversial, and sometimes even abusive training techniques for modifying the behavior of pet dogs.

More than once, I've had to patch up a relationship between dog and owner that was damaged when a well-intentioned owner tried to apply techniques they saw on "The Dog Whisperer" to their own dog. In some cases the use of those techniques led directly to aggression and a bite to the owner.

Please reconsider your company's support of Cesar Millan and his television show.

There are many well-known veterinarians, dog trainers, and behavior consultants who have spoken out against the techniques used on "The Dog Whisperer" since its inception.

The average pet owner (and apparently Mr. Millan himself) see a "calm, obedient dog" after Mr. Millan has applied some of his "training" techniques. But to a person such as myself who has a trained and educated eye for canine communication and behavior, that dog looks like one who's "shut down" and suffering from "learned helplessness."

Some of the abusive techniques I've seen on "The Dog Whisperer" include:

Choking off a dog's air by twisting the collar while holding the dog's front feet off the floor

Using "flooding" (forcing the animal to face its fear by dragging it into the midst of what it's afraid of, be that a car or a linoleum floor) - a technique that can increase anxiety-based behavior problems and even create Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the dog

The "alpha roll" (which supposedly creates "calm submission" but in actuality causes the animal to literally struggle for its life -- in canine society the only time one canine rolls another on its back is when it intends to eviscerate it -- before giving up in "learned helplessness" and a brain chemistry state akin to severe depression in humans)

I've seen first-hand the damage to relationships between dogs and owners this show and Cesar Millan's techniques (combined with the "authority" granted by his celebrity status) have caused.

Please do not add to the fear, intimidation, and pain dogs suffer in the name of "training" by dog "experts" who promote outmoded ideas such as dominance, "alpha rolls," and the use of punishment as a "humane" way to teach dogs. Or to the confusion of dog owners who are told by the media that such techniques are proper techniques to use with their beloved pets.

Please cancel your contracts with Mr. Millan and design a promotional campaign that will be as good for pet dogs and their owners as it will be for Merial.

Thank you!



Please ask your veterinarian to write to Merial criticizing their cross-promotion of Cesar Millan. Below is some more information that you can use to educate your vet if he/she doesn't understand your concerns about the dangers of the technique promoted by Cesar Millan on "The Dog Whisperer."

The AVSAB (American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior) has issued position statements on Dominance and also on Punishment, both of which pertain to "The Dog Whisperer:" http://www.avsabonline.org/avsabonline/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=80&Itemid=366

Other info on "dominance" and the use of punishment as being detrimental to dogs and dog behavior:

"Diamonds in the Ruff" http://www.diamondsintheruff.com/whisperer.html

Doggone Safe: Wolf Pack/Dominance Myth http://doggonesafe.blogspot.com/2009/04/wolf-packdominance-myth.html

Articles from the ClickerSolutions email list: http://www.clickersolutions.com/articles/index.htm#dominance

And an excellent article by Morgan Specter: "Moving Beyond the Dominance Myth: Towards an Understanding of Training as Partnership" http://www.4pawsu.com/MOVING%20BEYOND%20THE%20DOMINANCE%20MYTH.pdf

Cesar Millan talks a lot about leadership. His words are good. But his actions promote a forceful, dictatorial kind of leadership. I much prefer a good relationship that's like that of dance partners, where there's a certain amount of give-and-take (and a lot of joy) but that the human partner leads the dance. Good dance leaders certainly don't use fear or intimidation or force of any kind when leading their partner through the dance steps!

“Dominance and all that jazz…” by Sue Ailsby explores the idea of “dominance” and how thinking in terms of dominance can adversely affect our relationships with our dogs. There are a lot of myths surrounding the idea of “dominance” as it applies to human/dog interactions, and this article debunks some of them.

See the full article.


This wonderful article by Donna Duford explores the shifts in perception that can accompany “crossing over” (shifting from traditional command- and correction-based training methods to positive reinforcement methods, including clicker-training). In my own experience as a crossover trainer, I’ve found that I’ve become much more sensitive to canine body language, especially to stress signals (something we try to avoid in truly dog-friendly training methods, although some stress is an inevitable part of learning). This article explains just why there’s “no going back” once you’ve “crossed over” to positive training methods. A must-read for anyone who wants to understand why clicker trainers and trainers using primarily positive reinforcement are often so adamant that their way is the only way they will ever train a dog.

Read the article “You Can Cross Over, But You Can’t Cross Back”


Brandy is my “crossover” dog. I got her at 4 months old, but didn’t do much socialization with her (and she’d had practically none before I got her, spending most of her time in a crate). That was mostly due to our older dog, Barney, who had been “slowing down.” We thought it was due to old age (a large dog, 9 years old) but a couple of months after Brandy came home Barney was diagnosed with blood cancer (multiple myeloma). With most of my time, attention, and energy focused on Barney for much of 2001 (we lost him in October of that year), Brandy got short shrift. She got along fine with the other dogs and staff at Rover Come Over doggie daycare, and I thought that would be enough.

After we lost Barney, I began clicker-training Brandy. The traditional correction-based methods I’d been taught and had used successfully before - Barney was a registered therapy dog with Therapy Dogs International - just weren’t working with Brandy. She’d either shut down entirely when I corrected her with even so much as a sharp shout, or she’d race about wildly with an “if I’m a bad dog let’s see how bad I can be!” look in her eyes.

Thanksgiving weekend, I attended the Darkover Grand Council Meeting — an annual science fiction/fantasy convention. One of the panel discussions was titled “Flying Cats and Talking Dogs: Creating believable animals in SF&F.” I brought up the question of how authors can make sure they’re getting it “right.” As a dog trainer who’s studied canine behavior (including wolf behavior), I often find it jarring when I’m reading a story that features dogs or wolves – simply because the author got it “wrong.” This is especially true of fantasy novels that include wolves – or werewolves – because there’s so much misinformation ingrained in our “common knowledge” of wolves.

One of the panel members asked what it was that authors so often got wrong about wolves, and I replied “Alpha wolves and wolf hierarchy.” There wasn’t time to go into the details of just how wrong the “common view” of wolf culture is. I left it at “A wolf pack is actually a family unit, with Mom and Dad leading their offspring” and invited anyone interested to email me for more information.

This is a question that comes up a lot with people who are exploring the uses of positive reinforcement and clicker training: “When can I stop using food?”

And my response is: “When can your boss stop paying you for the work you do?”

I know, that’s a bit facetious, but I think it gets the point across.

In clicker training, the click marks the behavior that you’re reinforcing (so the dog understands what the reward is for), but the click (or “Yes!” or other marker signal) is also a promise to “pay” and should be followed by a reinforcer.

In most cases, that means a treat, simply because that’s quick and easy. But you can use lots of other things the dog finds rewarding: specifically any opportunity to do something the dog really likes or wants to do. That may be moving forward again when practicing loose-leash walking, stopping to sniff something interesting after practicing “attention” work with you, the opportunity to play, or even the opportunity to do whatever it is you just clicked the dog for not doing (chase a squirrel, for example).

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