Food: Can’t live with it; can’t live without it. Entirely wrong. Let me rephrase … Food: Can’t live without it. Food is fuel. Food is a life source. These are undeniable facts. I think we can all agree on that, yes? Food is also a primary reinforcement for behavior, otherwise known as a reward. This is also a fact. Watch any nature show, and it is abundantly apparent. Yet, when it comes to dog training, there is much contention and resistance to using food in training.
As a dog trainer with a background in psychology, I find the reluctance of some people to use food in training very perplexing. Training dogs to willingly do our bidding consists of teaching a new, often unnatural behavior to them, or, at the very least, increasing the likelihood of an existing behavior. In either case, the formula for teaching any animal anything is as easy as ABC: Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence. In other words, the process goes like this: What action or environmental cue came immediately before the behavior, and what was the outcome of performing said behavior?
When adding a new behavior and/or increasing the likelihood of any desired behavior to a dog’s routine, in most cases, the easiest (and kindest and most fun) thing to do is reward what you like, and you’ll get more of it. And food, being a life source, makes for a wonderful consequence/reward. If you use food in training properly, it makes an amazing impression on your dog.
Additionally, you are going to feed your dog every day anyway, right? Well, now that you know that it can be a powerful motivator, why toss it all in a bowl once or twice a day only to be either devoured in mere seconds or ignored completely when your dog walks away from the bowl? It is a waste of those delicious morsels, otherwise known as hundreds of opportunities to make an amazing impression on your dog. To dogs, who cannot buy their own food and mostly no longer have free-range access to roam, scavenge, beg, or hunt, the food you provide them is currency — and also kind of magical. To toss all those riches into in a bowl as if they have no value is the equivalent to throwing money down the toilet. Or rather, into your dog’s stomach. Not to mention, what happens, psychologically when something formerly of value is present in abundance? Very often, things that are readily available, in abundance, or even excess, for “free” (meaning available for no specific behavior, not given as a consequence) are often devalued or considered inconsequential.
Animals were designed to work for their food, and to deny them a chance to work for their paycheck can lead to boredom or depression. Your dog is left unemployed, and that can also lead to other problems, such as appetite apathy, or worse, a dog who decides to create his own job, such as watching out the front window all day, barking at anyone on “his” territory, which, generally, to a dog, means anything in eyesight.
Yes, I am saying your barking problem can be fixed by having your dog work for his daily ration. In fact, creating value around food will give you leverage in solving nearly every doggy dilemma. When food is high value and earned through good behavior, suddenly the training game odds are in your favor. You control the food. Why wouldn’t you stack the deck? This doesn’t have to be done in a stingy or otherwise unpleasant way. I am not suggesting that at all, quite the opposite. Food time should be fun time. But it should be a daily team activity, a time to practice skills and games, a time to bond with your pooch. Imagine if you went out to a friend’s house for dinner, sat at her table, and she plopped down a big plate of food in front of you, and then went into the other room and sat on her smartphone. So rude. Right? It’s dismissive, insulting, and kind of sad.
You might now be thinking, “Well, I don’t have time every single day to hand out hundreds of rewards to my dog.” OK, fair enough, but how about measuring out your dog’s daily ration and setting aside a small portion, a few handfuls, even just to play a few training games or to work on a new trick right before mealtime? And what about taking the rest of the daily ration and putting it into a few food-dispensing toys? They can be rubber toys that you stuff or puzzle toys that the dog has to roll around to release the food from the maze. Feeding your dog in creative ways not only increases your bond and helps you with your training goals, but also gives your dog something to do that takes more than 30 seconds twice a day, and it will perk up the interest of the most finicky eaters, too. Utilizing food in training and enrichment not only provides your dog with nutrition for his body, but also becomes brain food as well. Now that is nutritious.
Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior, where she recruits and trains for SIRIUS Puppy & Training, the family business.
Main article photo by: Aleksandr Zotov-istock