Beyond the Treat: Teaching Dogs to Work Without Food Present

In our 2nd lesson, we explore how accidental training can lead to treat dependency and provide practical steps to help your dog work and respond to commands, whether or not a reward is visible.

Dogs sitting for treat reward not treat bribe

This is the second video in our PupU Canine Rewards series. In this lesson, we explore how accidental training can lead to treat dependency and provide practical steps to help your dog work and respond to commands, whether or not a reward is visible.

Many families report, “My dog will only do it if he knows I have a treat!” It can seem like dogs being stubborn, difficult, or trying to deceive us. It’s natural for us to want dogs to listen solely based on their relationship with us because we’re “in charge” or because we provide for their needs. In reality, dogs want good things to happen, and they want to avoid unpleasant experiences. While dogs have complex social relationships, they aren’t trying to take over the house or trick us.

In most situations where a dog only works with a treat present, the pet parent has accidentally trained the dog to do this! Because some skills are trained with the dog following a food lure, a dog can think that the food is part of the signal. Then if no food is present, he doesn’t have the usual signal. We can add training steps to deliberately teach your dog to work, whether or not a reward is obvious.

Quick Background on Learning

At the most basic level, dogs want good things to happen and to avoid unpleasant experiences. By changing the environment or consequences, we can make it more likely or less likely that a dog will do a specific behavior. For example, sometimes we want a behavior to happen more often, like come when called. Other times, we want a behavior to happen less often, such as barking out the window.

Long term, behavior tends to deteriorate if it is not reinforced. For example, we might drive the long way to work if there is construction or a parade on our usual route. But if there’s no purpose, we are likely to take the easiest route to work. Dogs are the same way.

Some of the skills we train will have built-in rewards:

  • A dog who is calm gets to go out the front door.
  • A dog who keeps his paws on the floor is allowed to meet the visitor he loves.
  • A dog walking on a loose leash will get to continue walking.

Alternatively, different temptations in your pup’s daily life will constantly test some of the skills we train. For example, if we call your dog back at the park and then put on his leash to go home, he may think that’s great because dinner is next. Or he may feel the park is more fun, so we might see the “Come!” deteriorate over time. We can put in extra effort to reward the come when called so that he continues to respond well even if we’re calling him away from friends, fun, and wildlife.

Dogs are all different; your dog’s preferences, interest in rewards, and interest in the environment will influence how much effort you need to put into maintaining skills.

Train Without Food Visible

Keep your treats in a pocket, out of sight. You can do the same activity with a ball or tug toy.  

Ask your dog for an easy task. Say “Yes” as he completes the job so that you can identify the moment he has earned a reward. Then reach into your pocket to get out the reward.

If you can, have someone else watch you and help ensure you’re not reaching for the treat until after you give the “yes” signal. It’s easy to want to reach as we say “yes,” - but reaching teaches dogs to watch for hints that treats are available rather than working without focusing on the rewards.

As your dog gets more experienced, you might try multiple tasks before giving the “Yes!” signal and then getting out a treat.  

If your dog does not do a task, you might give him a second try or note that we’ll have to work on the skill separately. He might not be ready to do it without the food as part of the signal.

Train With Food Further Away

Make a list of any tasks your dog knows well and will usually do on the first try. This might include sit, down, or shake. Set a favorite toy, treat, or dog food on a nearby surface. Move a few steps away from the surface. Ask your dog for a trick. “Yes!” as he completes the task and then move with your dog to the rewards. Give him a treat or play with him. Then move away and try again.

You might move further away from the rewards as your dog gets more advanced. For example, increase your distance by a foot or two at a time. Another way to make this more challenging is to have your dog do multiple tricks before the “yes” and moving back to the rewards.

This game teaches your dog that even if no food is visible, he should still make an effort to work.

You can do spontaneous repetitions during the day. Ask for a task. “Yes” as your dog completes the job, and then move with your dog to the kitchen or treat cupboard to find a reward.

Next Steps

Ready for the next step? Check out Dog Training Rewards: Praise, Petting, and Beyond.

Need a refresher? Check out Choosing the Best Treats for Training or get personalized one-on-one help today!