Every time I hear someone say this-as I did again just the other day-a couple of things jump out at me: The handler doesn’t understand how to use food properly, and foundation in training is lacking.
Building reliable behaviors takes time and a solid working relationship. And before you can expect reliability without food, a strong reinforcement history with food is essential. Maintenance is also essential and is often overlooked until behaviors begin to fall apart. Realizing a performance without food is all part of training and preparation-a process over time. Lots of time. So if your dog “won’t work without food”, here are questions to consider:
1. Are the behaviors fluent? And by that I mean are the behaviors perfected with strong reinforcement history, generalized to a variety of locations under appropriately varied conditions?
2. Have you gone through a process of randomizing reinforcement for individual behaviors?
3. Have you conditioned secondary reinforcers , i.e. paired food with praise, petting and/or play? Have you invested yourself in the reward?
4. Have you taught your dog that food is not always on your body but might otherwise still be available? Examples here would be food targets or jackpot rewards placed elsewhere, working with them in sight and then out of sight.
5. Have you systematically built longer chains of behaviors?
6. If you have you done all of the above, was it carried out at the appropriate stages of learning?
7. Are you continuing to maintain finished behaviors with periodic food reinforcement?
8. Are your expectations realistic and fair to both you and your dog? Have you put the time into training, been clear and consistent with your criteria, timing and reinforcement?
So give it some thought if you have to ask why your dog won’t work without food-you just might be missing some the basic essentials here which are often overlooked.
Meanwhile, train happy and keep smiling-your dogs will love you for it!