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Will I Need To Use Food Rewards, Including Treats, Forever?

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

There are many opinions out there on how to best train dogs. The more involved you become in the dog world the more options you hear as well as arguments for or against other methods. Here at Baxter & Bella we strongly believe that the best way to train your puppy to become a happy healthy lifelong family companion is to use positive reinforcement - yes that means food - because most dogs LOVE it and are motivated by it. Does that mean you will ALWAYS have to carry food rewards around with you? No. Let me explain.

We use the acronym LEARN to describe the different learning phases dogs go through: LURE, EXCHANGE, ACT IN COOPERATION, DESIRE TO PLEASE & NATURAL LEARNED RESPONSE.

In the first phase, your puppy may be lured in order to complete the behavior. A lure is showing your puppy something they want like a food reward or toy and using it to get them to do a behavior. For example, holding a piece of food in your hand near your dog’s nose to turn them in a circle is luring. The second they are lured into position, you mark “YES” and give a reward. A treat must happen every time. All behaviors start here but quickly move to the next phase. It is important to get out of this phase as soon as possible.

The second phase, which follows sometimes within the same training session or possibly several days/weeks, is EXCHANGE. In this case, your pup will do the behavior as long as he gets a reward for it. You ask your puppy to sit, he gets a treat. You are not luring him into a sit. He must do it on cue, but he gets a treat every time for doing so. Much of puppyhood is spent in this phase. They are happy to do what you ask as long as you pay them for it. 

The third phase is where treats begin to be faded out. We call it ACT IN COOPERATION and it’s just that. Your puppy starts to do behaviors because you asked them to and they know it eventually benefits them in some way. It is different from the second phase in that we introduce intermittent reinforcement, which is only reinforcing behavior some of the time. Instead of getting a treat every time a behavior is done, you may ask for three behaviors and then reward. Maybe next time you ask for 1, 5, 10, 4, etc. The reward begins to vary, with the trainer paying close attention to how their puppy responds. We want the behavior to continue so the reward must come often enough to keep up good performance but not enough that the pup relies on the treat. We also make sure to give attention, belly rubs, ear massages, a game of fetch, or other things our pups absolutely love as rewards. You may ask for a mix of behaviors, sit, down, sit, down, stay then reward. There are many ways you can vary the reinforcement. Mix it up to keep your puppy engaged and at the same time you are taking away his dependency on rewards. Awesome!

Some  behaviors get to the third phase quickly and others take longer. For example, most puppies pick up on “SIT” right away and consistently do it on cue. This is a behavior you can start intermittently reinforcing within a few months. “HEEL” on the other hand is more difficult, especially when out in public. You may need to spend more time in the second phase with this behavior. “COME” is like that as well. I treat my puppies EVERY time they come for as long as I can (not overdoing it of course to the point of dependence) but I am competing with some serious competition (birds, bushes, grass, smells, other animals, sounds) when outdoors in new places. I tag on a sit, down or touch when he does come as a way of intermittently reinforcing. 

The final phases mean your puppy will perform any behavior you ask in any situation without any expectation of a treat. This does not usually happen for most pups until they are around one to two years old. So be patient. It will happen as long as you begin using intermittent reinforcement along the way. This ensures your puppy will not become dependent on a treat or reward. 

One final note….We use different phases depending on the circumstances. When you take your puppy somewhere new, you may need to go all the way back to the LURE/REWARD phase until he begins generalizing the command to the new location then work your way up to the third phase; this usually takes place within one session but note that we go back and forth between the phases until our puppies do every behavior in any situation/place. 

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