We use food in training for many reasons:
- Reinforcement drives behaviour & most dogs love eating so food is an easy reinforcer.
- Food allows us to reward quickly and many times in a minute. The more reps we can get in, the faster we and our dogs will learn.
But Can Treats Be TOO High Value?
Yes. We want to use valuable reinforcers, but not reinforcers that our dogs don’t think they can live without. For most training scenarios, the best treats or toys are ones our dog finds valuable, but not so valuable that they would endanger themselves to get them. Sarah Stremming explains this beautifully in her Cog-Dog Radio episode When Positive Reinforcement is Coercive.
On a personal note, I have made this mistake with Riker (anxious) and Enzo (confident). I used very high stakes food when training Riker, and he was participating in shows at fairs in front of hundreds of people. I was unintentionally coercing him and it soon backfired. With his training since then, I use medium value food and always consider his emotional state, allowing him a safe way to opt out of training.
With Enzo it was Tug! Tug! Tug! The poor guy could not think in agility since for him, tug really is life or death. I had to put a lot of time into teaching Enzo to eat around agility equipment, but now we can use a lot of food as reinforcement rather than always tug.
If your dog is worried about the world, using treats so valuable they ignore the outside world can create many problems. If your dog needs those treats so bad that they are willing to put themselves in harms way to get it, you effectively remove choice for the dog. The right level of food for anxious dogs is one that the dog wants but that he can live without. Especially when we are asking our dog to do something they feel is risky, we need to build consent into the training process.
Coercing a dog into situations using too high value food can cause your dog to:
- Have Explosive reactivity
- Shut Down
Some reinforcers can be far to important to the dog to be fair to use. I want my dog to always be able to say no to a behaviour they feel is risky.
When training difficult skills, if your dog is confident but feels he cannot live without the treats you are offering your dog is likely to be frantic and less thoughtful. If you are using a too high reinforcer in agility, you might see knocked bars, spinning, and biting the handler. In obedience work you might get jumping, mouthing, & barking.
In short, watch your dog. If the reinforcer you are using is a matter of life or death for your dog, put it away and choose a different option. We use positive reinforcement to create happy and willing dogs because coercion builds anxiety and stress into our training. Be fair to your dog and always consider their emotional state, not only the behaviour we are trying to achieve.