Recently, at the end of their first week of Puppy Kindergarten, a lovely person with a slightly shy 9-week-old puppy came up to me after class and said, “We’d like to train her using only love as a reward, not food. Is that OK for class?”
Most of our training courses are designed for dogs under 6 months of age, and this particular class is specifically for very young pups, starting them off between 8 and 12 weeks old. We most definitely use food both as lures and rewards in our classes, especially when teaching brand new behavior and when trying to make positive associations with the environment or training in general. Later, we also use other tangible forms of rewards such as interactive play and life rewards eventually, too. However, in the beginning there is no doubt our primary go-to is food. It can be the pup’s daily ration or a bunch of cut-up special treats, whatever snack the individual dog likes best.
The reason food is the leader of the reinforcement pack? Because it works. In fact, it works really well. Food is a life source, and most dogs go bonkers at the opportunity to get a little nibble. Additionally, every single student who comes to class is going to feed their puppy anyway, so, instead of pouring all of that valuable resource into a bowl, which from a trainer’s viewpoint is the same thing as flushing it down the toilet, why not make use of that powerful currency to both enhance your relationship with your dog and influence their behavior?
The resistance to training with food is something I’ve encountered time and time again over the years. It’s an interesting phenomenon that seems to only occur in the human/dog bond space and, I believe, it says a lot about how people view their relationship with their dog.
Whenever someone tells me they do not want to use food in training, the first thing I do is ask why not? I usually get some variation of these three responses:
• I don’t want to have to carry food around for my dog to listen to me.
• I want my dog to respect me; I don’t want to have to bribe him.
• She only behaves when I have food.
All of the statements above are really saying the same thing: That using food somehow cheapens their relationship with their dog. To these folks having to give their dog food for following our requests is the equivalent of paying a friend to hang out with you. I get why that is unappealing. However, it is important to keep in mind that a dog is not a human, but rather a separate species and that much of what we ask them to do and tolerate does not come naturally to them. So, it’s not so much that if you use food in training you’re paying a friend to be your sidekick, but rather that you’re a teacher handing out gold stars for a job well done on a new, foreign lesson. You’re showing your approval for effort and accuracy. Besides, food does play a role in most relationships. We may not pay our friends for the pleasure of their company, but we sure do take time to share meals as part of the bonding experience. Which brings me to my next point.
Food is love. When we are young, we are fed by our parents. All mammals are fed this way as babies. With feeding time comes a primal, deep sense of satisfaction, connection, and comfort. We show love with food on dates, at birthdays, weddings, anniversaries. Sharing food breaks down barriers and makes for warm, fuzzy feelings. Why, then, would we not add this magical ingredient into our training program? You are going to feed your dog at some point anyway. Harness that power!
So training with food actually is training with love, with a bonus. Training with food adds clarity and relevance to our training requests. It helps answer the question that is always in a dog’s mind, “Why?” If your dog is your companion, shouldn’t the answer to that question be something more respectful than, “Because I said so?”
With that in mind, please consider that when we are teaching dogs to do our bidding, on our whim, for our pleasure, we really only have two ways to motivate them. We can coerce or we can coax. We must either use unpleasant or pleasant consequences to get the job done. So if one chooses not to use tangible rewards in training, one much use unpleasant means to teach a dog the relevance of our requests. And if you got a dog to be your sidekick, your best bud, your huckleberry, why would you want to force or frighten them to follow your lead?
So please, do feed the dog! In training! In play! Let it enrich your relationship and feed your dog’s soul.
Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior where she recruits and trains instructors for SIRIUS Puppy & Training, the family business.
Main article photo by: Ed Schipul-Creative Commons