One of the most common questions I'm asked is "when can I stop rewarding my dog"? The topic of increasing behaviour is complex but my simple answer is never. Here's why.
When we use food in training, our goal is to have the dog repeat that particular behaviour in the future. If sitting reliably produces a cookie, they're likely to continue the sitting behaviour in order to gain access to cookies in the future. Rewarded behaviour gets repeated.
The process of increasing a behaviour is called reinforcement. And reinforcement drives behaviour.
All animals (humans included) behave in ways that are likely to produce positive outcomes, or avoid negative ones. Whether you love or hate your job, you keep going back because the behaviour of going to work has been reinforced by past outcomes.
We learn early on that if we go to work, we get paid. And money is a valuable and necessary currency for humans to survive. If not money, maybe the positive outcome is personal fulfilment or social interactions that keep you going back week after week.
Whatever your reason is for showing up, how would your behaviour change if that reinforcer was no longer available? If your pay was cut in half or your work bestie got fired? What if you were transferred to a boring position or your desk was moved into a broom closet?
Your going to work behaviour will likely decrease. Maybe not right away but over time, because reinforcement drives behaviour.
Every night I chaperone Hank on his walk down the road. His recall is reliable, he pays no mind to people, cars, bikes and dogs. Usually.
But over the last few weeks I've noticed changes in Hank's behaviour. His recall has been lagging, he's been going farther ahead of me than normal and he's been showing a lot of interest in the one and only house we pass by standing and staring; not only responding to "let's go" on his terms. He even went half way up the driveway and showed no response to my calls for a full 30 seconds. I don't love it.
So what changed? Hank has a strong history of getting rewarded for come, wait, stay and let's go, which means he's likely to do it. But I've been asking him to disengage from something valuable (the environment) for nothing more than a "good job" lately. Coming to me has also produced some negative outcomes for him. I've had to leash him several times. A screaming child went by on their bike, a strange dog was being dragged and yelled at by their owner and a dirt bike flew past us and almost hit me. Those stressful events were made more stressful by me frantically clipping the leash (and maybe yelling at some folks).
Hank wasn't being stubborn or bad. He was being a normal dog. A normal animal. He's not going to do what I ask 100% of the time just because I said so. That's not how life works.
So to change things, I brought food with me on walks. Before we got to the driveway I got his attention and gave him the opportunity to heel and eat cheese instead of trespassing (which he happily did). I asked for some easy recalls and added in some chase games to reinforce it. And I put the leash on, gave some food, took it back off again a few times.
Now we're back to normal. He just needed a reason to make the choice I wanted him to make. So while you can can and should fade out food for many different behaviours in many different scenarios, remember that knowing how to do something and having the motivation to do it are very different. Behaviour doesn't occur in a vacuum and it's important to understand that the environment, emotions and other conditions will affect it.