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Food with thought: Reinforcement is key to good dog training

| Wednesday, April 8, 2015, 9:01 p.m.
Andrea Lamping

“Don't use too many treats or your dog will only work when you have food.”

“A dog should listen because you are his master, not because you have a treat.”

These are common misconceptions that I hear regularly from pet owners — even pet professionals.

Food actually is a great tool to use for conditioning our beloved canines. Training falls apart when there is not a proper reinforcement strategy in place. Think about how well you would perform at your job with no paycheck, bonuses or feedback.

So, should you use food rewards to train your dog? Absolutely. However, there are some things to remember.

1. Food should not be the only reward available to your dog. All dogs are different, so make a list of 10 things that your dog enjoys and use all of them to reinforce desired behaviors. Toys, games, exercise, walks, play time and socialization are good examples.

2. Don't bribe. Use a food lure the first few times, then give the dog a hand signal and follow up with a reward from your bait bag or pocket.

3. You should use a lot of rewards and reinforcement during the first stages of learning a new behavior. Then, when your dog catches on, start acting more like a slot machine — giving really big, memorable rewards (jackpots) for the times he completely nails it. This makes your dog addicted to your approval and eager to keep working hard for you.

4. Have your dog work for his food; no more food bowl left on the floor all of the time. This will eliminate extra calories from unhealthy treats. Save the treats for surprise rewards when your dog is offering fantastic performance.

5. When exposing your dog's skills to new distractions and destinations, be sure to increase the amount of rewards and praise at first so that he easily translates his previous knowledge to the new environment.

Andrea J. Lamping trains dogs in the greater airport area, including Sewickley, Moon, Robinson and Hopewell. She can be reached at 724-984-7829 or visit her website at www.moon-walkers.com.

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