6 Labrador training tips for working with food


If you train with food, you need to be good at it.

Which takes a little bit of knowledge.

And some practice!

This is common sense really,  but it is surprising how many people give up training with food because they find it difficult.

Often coming to the entirely mistaken conclusion, that training with food does not work.

In this article, we are going to look at some of the skills you will need to work with food effectively

1. Make the right choice of treat

Choosing the right treat for the skill you are training today, is critical.  And your ability to make the right choice will improve with practice.

The most important factors which will influence your choice will be

  • Preference
  • Distractions
  • Hunger

Each of these factors work together and against each other.  If your dog prefers roast chicken to sausage,  you may still find training with sausage is effective, until you increase the distractions around him.

six tips for training your labrador with foodThen you may need to switch to chicken for a while.

Unless of course he is very hungry indeed, in which case sausage may work just fine!

Special or unusual foods often make better training treats.  If your dog gets kibble for every meal,  kibble is not going to cut the mustard.  

Not unless he hasn’t eaten for 48 hours.

Whilst it makes sense not to try and train a dog that has just ‘stuffed his face’  we don’t want to starve our dogs.   So when distractions are increased, we  may need to offer better treats for a while

2. Create an atmosphere of calm

It is difficult to train with food if your dog is very excitable around it.

Many Labradors are extremely lively and very greedy.  Just the mere sight of your treat bag is enough to set the off barking or spinning around on the end of the lead.

Many will lunge and grab at anything offered to them,  with no respect for the ends of your fingers

So, before you even begin training,  you need to teach your dog to take treats gently and to wait to be given a treat rather than trying to help himself from your stash.

You can read up here on how to teach your Labrador not to snatch.

Practice until you can hold a treat out three inches from your dog’s muzzle, between your thumb and forefinger, without him making any effort to grab it.

Try to demonstrate calm behaviour to your dog – this can be tricky if you are a naturally lively, chatty person.   But if you are excited, he will be too.  A soft, calm voice and minimal talking, can work wonders.

3. Master the effective delivery of treats

For those that have previously been training without food,  a common problem is the frequency with which rewards are delivered. They may be waiting too long between delivering rewards,  or stopping to chat to and praise the dog in between.

Effective delivery of treats is rapid.   And the proportion of behaviours that are rewarded will change once the new behaviour has been established.

There is a lot of information on effective delivery of rewards, on the Totally Dog Training website.

4. Become skilful in the use of an event marker

An event marker is essential when training with food.  This is because it is so easy to reward the dog at the wrong time and reinforce the wrong behaviour.

Your event marker makes a distinctive sound that lets the dog know exactly what the reward is for.   But using an event marker is a skill.  It does not come naturally and you will need to improve your timing and co-ordination.

You can practice by watching a TV programme and ‘marking’ a specific type of behaviour,  such as an arm lift or a smile.   Practice on your kids, or your cat.

Just don’t use it around your dog, until you have mastered the skill of clicking when you observe a change in behaviour, with a reasonable level of competence.  It won’t take you long, and you will continue to improve after you have started training your dog.

5. Don’t blame your tools!

Reinforcing behaviours with food always works provided the principles are applied correctly.  The dog must want what you are offering, and he must be introduced to working with distractions in easy stages and with high value rewards

If your dog loses interest in your game don’t blame the tools.   Look at the way you are using them.

Look at your treat choices and ask yourself if they are right for this situation.

Ask yourself if your dog is ready to work with food.  Have you taught him to be calm near your treats and to take them gently.

Look at the frequency with which you deliver rewards and ask yourself if they are too far apart.  Or if your timing is still a little out.

6. Film yourself

It is often impossible to spot flaws in your own performance or to figure out what you are doing wrong, without some kind of feedback or perspective.  A great way to get this is to film yourself.

You can do this with a smart phone and a GorillaPod which can act as a miniature tripod or be wrapped around a hook

When you watch yourself back,  you’ll be surprised how enlightening this is.   For more feedback you can join the growing numbers of Labrador owners posting their training videos up on the forum.

Advice and support is usually very kind and constructive.

Practice makes perfect!

However clumsy you feel to begin with, you will get better.   With dog training, you really do get back out, what you put in.

Most importantly ‘watch, watch, watch’  experts training.   Even if you are using a verbal event marker, you can learn a huge amount from watching a skilled clicker trainer.

There is no better place to go than the Kikopup channel for this purpose.   If you have not yet discovered this excellent resource over on youtube, make sure you have a few hours to spare before dipping in.  You will find it hard to tear yourself away.

What are your plans?

What are you planning to teach your dog this year?  Share your goals in the comments box below


Previous articleHow to teach your Labrador to jump
Next articleHow does your Labrador see the world?
Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of several books on dogs. She is the founder of the Labrador Site and a regular contributor. She is passionate about helping people enjoy their Labradors and lives in Hampshire with her husband and four dogs.