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Leerburg Dog Training Blog

The best source for dog training news, tricks and treats, right from world class leaders in dog training.

The best source for dog training news, tricks and treats, right from world class leaders in dog training.

When Do I Stop Using Food Rewards

When we train with food rewards, we will meet people who tell us how foolish we are for training with FOOD TREATS. We will be told that it is only a matter of time before we ask our dog to do something and we don’t have food with us to reward the dog with and then what will you do?

That is just one of the reasons why it is important that you understand exactly how we reduce the using food rewards in your training program.

When we start reward based training, our dogs are put on a continuous reward program. This is where the dog is rewarded every time it performs a behavior correctly. In fact, when we start training, we often reward the dog for just TRYING to perform the behavior.

A continuous reward program is the perfect way to teach a dog new behaviors. But leaving the dog on a continuous reward program too long will creates a problem.

When the continuous reward is used for too long of a period of time, the dogs start to expect the reward every single time they offer the behavior and when the handler stops rewarding each attempt, the dogs stops offering the behavior.

This is the reason trainers need to move on to VARIABLE and RANDOM rewards as soon as possible.

An example of a VARIABLE reward system occurs when the dog is rewarded for the 3rd, 5th, and 7th and 9th time it preforms a behavior.

An example of a RANDOM reward system occurs when the dog is rewarded for the 3rd, 5th, 2nd, 7th, and 1st. time it preforms a behavior. The schedule may change depending on the training results.

The goal in a reward based training is to create a situation where we create an expectation of a reward and when that reward is not delivered as expected the dog goes UP IN DRIVE and tries harder the next time it’s asked to perform.
We compare this to people who play slot machines. They know they won’t win every time but they hope the next time they pull that handle will be their lucky day.

The question new trainers are always going to ask is, “WHEN DO I MOVE OFF OF A CONTINUOUS REWARD?”

What we do is move to a RANDOM REWARD when our dog performs a behavior THREE TIMES IN A ROW without making a mistake.

With this said it is vitally important to understand that there is no reason to completely STOP using food in training. Food is a motivator for your dog. You are about to find out how true that really is. So with this said, we hope you will keep your dog on a random reinforcement schedule for the rest of its life.


  1. Avatar
    Mike Krugman
    April 25, 2017

    Hi Ed:

    I would like to try to begin moving off of a continuous food reward to a toy. The search dog I’m training now has become very proficient in his finds without mistakes. Would this be the right time to interject the toy? (In this case, his favorite is a tug). As I move to random rewards, would it be OK to alternate between food and the tug? When I first got this dog, he had very little play or prey drive. As his training progressed, his prey drive grew and the play drive came with it. Thank you and help is appreciated.

  2. Ed Frawley
    Ed Frawley
    April 25, 2017


    Its difficult to guess at an answer without knowing what your training your dog to do and seeing the dog work. I can offer some general advice.

    1- I would start the tug work separately from any search training. Reason being is there can often be issues with a possessive dog OUTING the toy. We would not want the hard feelings to interfear with the dogs searching. For that reason I would recommend the tug work be done first. The dog should have learned the RULES OF PLAY:

    1- Play when asked to Play
    2- Out the toy when asked to OUT
    3- Bring the toy back after to the handler it has been tossed or released by the handler.

    By the time your done with that training you will know if your dog like the toy/tug work more than the food rewards. If a dog has good prey drive they will often enjoy tugging more than food.

    Its a good idea to know how the dog views Tug Vs Food. You can use that information in your training plans. There will be times when you use food and when you reward with a tug toy.

    Something to keep in mind is there isn’t a time that trainers have to totally eliminate food reward. There is no reason to do that, Obviously we will want to reduce using food all the time, but if a dog has good food drive, why not use them when you want to.

    I would recommend the DVD I did with Michael Ellis titled THE POWER OF PLAYING TUG WITH YOUR DOG.

    Good luck – hope this helps.

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