My Dog Won’t Obey Me Without Food!

A very common complaint I hear from new Labrador owners is ” I can’t get him to do anything without treats”

And one of the main criticisms of using treats in training,  is that without them,  the  dog is not controllable.

So is this true?

Does the use of food in training produce dogs that are only obedient in the presence of food?

Training versus bribery

Training and bribery are two very different concepts.   Effective training creates an automatic and reliable response to a command or cue.

For example, you give a recall whistle and the dog comes racing towards you. 

Or you blow a ‘sit’ whistle, and the dog ‘sits’.

Bribery on the other hand, creates a response to the confident anticipation of a reward. 

But if you are training with treats,  how can you possibly avoid bribery taking place?

To understand we need to look closer at what a ‘trained response’ actually is.

The trained response

We can confidently say that we have generated a trained response when we can give a specific signal (like a recall whistle) in a range of different conditions and get a reliable response several times in a row, without offering or giving any reward to the dog.

But,  and this is a big but,  if we persistently give a signal and then fail to reward the response,  over time,  that response will die out.   This is always the case unless,  we punish all and every possible alternative that the dog might dream up.

This phenomenon whereby a behaviour disappears in the absence of any benefit to the dog,  is called extinction.   And it has been widely observed and studied in mammals for many years.

So whilst we can define a trained response as one that is carried out without the promise of any reward,  we do need to bear in mind that in the long run,  rewards must be given with sufficient frequency to perpetuate a trained response.

A bribed response

A response generated by the certainty of a reward (because you are holding out food in your hand,  or because you always and predictably reward the dog with food for a particular action),  is a bribed response.   The dog is not being trained, he is simply performing in the expectation of a reward.  Be it food, or any other form of reward.   If the dog perceives that the reward might not be forthcoming,  or if he believes he can get a greater reward elsewhere,  your apparent ‘training’ will break down.

Creating a trained response

To create a trained response rather than a bribed response,  we need to understand some of the theory behind how dogs learn,  and we need to use rewards in a particular way.   You cannot do this without information.

You will find this information in good dog training books, and in some of the training articles on this website.

For a detailed explanation of how dogs learn and how you can create a trained response in your dog using food, you might also like to check out How To Win At Dog Training.

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Pippa Mattinson

The Labrador Site is brought to you by Pippa Mattinson. Pippa's latest book The Happy Puppy Handbook is a definitive guide to early puppy care and training

by Pippa on January 27, 2013

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Hannah June 30, 2014 at 12:53 am

I have a problem. My 9 month old lab has started to refuse to go to his cage. Not even for food. I have to chase him around the house – corner him and eventually pick up him and carry him to cage. He’s got to be pushing 80 lbs. I won’t be able to do this much more. If I hold his collar he will sit stubbornly till I pull the collar off his head. He’s house trained – but can not be left alone At night or during the day while I am out for fear he will destroy the house. I am at a complete loss. He was doing so well before. Nothing changed at all in his cage. Any advice?


Lisa August 17, 2014 at 9:52 am

How does one decide when to stop giving treats every time to reward behaviour? My puppy is still only 8.5 weeks old so behaviours aren’t automatic yet but I want to make sure I keep him interested and don’t go wrong. Thanks


Ellie November 4, 2014 at 4:30 pm

My 8 month lab won’t return to me when he sees other dogs but if he’s on his own or we are round the house he won’t leave my side so how am I supposed to do recall if he won’t leave my side only when he sees a dog?


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