Lesson 7 of 10
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How to build your dog’s ability to work for food

It starts by making sure you’re following good dog training principles. Just following the tutorials in our other courses and leveling up at the recommended rate will get you around a lot of the common issues that hide behind the “not food motivated” mask.

It’s about introducing a new exercise, or skill, at the easiest possible level, training until the dog has a damn good understanding of the criteria, leveling up a tiny bit, and repeating.

Your dog won’t take treats as a reward for not pulling on a walk? That’s normal. So go train Loose Leash Walking in places where they will work for treats, create a solid understanding of the behavior and how to earn the reward, and then introduce real life rewards.

If you haven’t yet, take the Dog Training Essentials course.

Food is not the be-all and end-all of reward based training. You absolutely will, in most cases, run into a point of diminishing returns with food. That’s where we introduce real life rewards. But in order for the dog to be able to work for real life rewards, they need to understand “if I do X random behavior, I get what I want.” The most efficient way to teach that is by starting with food.

Make sure you have these elements in place

Get your training mechanics all neat and tidy

“Training mechanics” refers to your physical actions during a training session. Things like making sure your timing is right, making clear hand gestures, and not making a lot of extra movement that might be confusing.

Your dog does not know which of your gestures, mouth sounds, and facial expressions are relevant to what’s being taught.

Let’s say you unconsciously take a step forward before you give a command. Sparky might think the step forward is part of the cue.

Or you start a training session, and then your spouse pokes their head into the room to ask about dinner plans. Is the ensuing conversation with your spouse part of the training? Who knows! Certainly not Sparky.

It’s like if you were to learn a new language. You’re brand new to it, and you have a conversation with a native speaker who speaks too fast, mumbles, slurs their words, and uses a bunch of local slang that wasn’t covered in your beginner class.

And sure, you might be willing to push through that frustration. Because you, with your big human brain and your big human goals, know why learning a new language is worth doing. You have the benefit of understanding the point.

But your dog? Let alone your infant puppy? They don’t understand the point.

To improve your mechanics:

Film your training sessions

When you film your sessions, you might notice that your timing is off, or you’re doing extra movements, or there’s something in the environment that’s distracting the dog that you weren’t aware of.

As someone who has filmed endless hours of training in order to create all these academy courses, I can tell you that it’s amazing what you catch when you watch the replay that you were completely oblivious to in the moment.

Practice without your dog

As you work on each new tutorial in the Academy courses, it helps to do a “dry run” with an invisible dog before you start a training session. This lets you figure out your hand gestures, how you’re going to juggle the treats and/or leash, and get clear on exactly what to do in the session.

(This advice isn’t just for newbies – I do this before most of my own training sessions)

Set up your training environment properly

Make sure you’re training in a location that’s appropriate for the level you’re at.

See these lessons on leveling up:

Keep training sessions short

1-2 minutes tops, for now. As your dog gets the hang of things, you can increase the duration later.

Ignore mistakes

This is especially important for dogs who are afraid of the consequences of guessing wrong, or dogs like Flower who are easily frustrated by mistakes.

During your training sessions, if the dog does the wrong thing, don’t say anything about it. No corrections or no-reward markers, no “oops” or “no.” Just offer them another chance to get it right. If the dog makes three wrong guesses in a row, split your criteria down further.

(For some dogs, it may make sense to reintroduce no-reward markers later, but at this point)

Reward generously – maintain a high rate of reinforcement (ROR)

When I start working on the exercises in the Teaching the Training Game lesson, I don’t want there to be more than eight seconds between rewards. To do that, split your criteria down into tiny enough pieces that the dog gets it right at least every eight seconds.

This might seem weird for a low-FM dog, because if they won’t work for food, why would they care about MORE food? But we’re operating under the assumption that the real problem is frustration or fear of getting it wrong, remember. Tiny steps and easy wins encourage the dog to keep playing.