As kids, we quickly grasped the value of a dollar and rehearsed the ebb and flow of motivation with our friends: “Will you eat that bug for $1? How about $5? $100?!” We gradually upped the ante, because eating bugs or licking pavement or drinking sour milk had to be made worth our while. Show us the money and we’ll do the thing. As we grew up, this basic truth persisted, and we learned that having a job yielded a paycheck. But what if our bosses suddenly decided to toss us pennies for our full-time work? Would we keep showing up?
It’s safe to say that money is a top means of motivation in our society. We can reasonably say another incredibly potent motivator is food. We want to get enough food, of course, but we’re also concerned with the quality of the food we’re consuming. In a food-driven society, I personally wouldn’t be motivated by paychecks made up of trail mix. I’d give you the base-minimum effort for a popcorn paycheck. But — BAM — stick a wheel of brie in front of me, and I’d do whatever you want. We all have a spectrum of “meh” to “BAM” foods that we live by, and if our paychecks were made of food, some favored delectables would get us to eat the bug faster or do the job better.
When I train dogs — whether they’re housed or homeless — the quality of the food motivator I’m using is always at the forefront of my mind. If my dog is checked out or way more interested in something other than me and my food, then I may be failing to pay her properly. I’m not showing her the money.
One of the most intriguing things about domesticated dogs, in my opinion, is that they have wide-ranging palate preferences. I’ve met dogs (one of my own included) who will shell out 20 behaviors in sequence for a single carrot stick or lettuce leaf. I like to call these dogs “freaks.” Most dogs need more than a piece of kibble or a hard biscuit if you’re asking them to learn something new, if you’re trying to change old habits, or if the behavior you’re asking them not to do is wrapped up in a lot of emotion.
Another thing to consider about dogs and food is that many of them aren’t concerned with five-star meals. There are, however, what you might call “fancier” food motivators in the dog world. I’ve had great luck training trickier dogs using tripe and sardines (though you may find the smells personally de-motivating), and renowned dog trainer Jean Donaldson swears by Pecorino Romano cheese. But most of the time, I get by on budget-conscious training rewards and can say confidently that high value is in no way synonymous with high cost. Instead of buying expensive bags of processed nuggets at the store, you can just boil a chicken breast, unwrap a string cheese, or whip out a hot dog (and you don’t even have to cook it!). Anything moist, chewy, smelly, and especially meaty is going to give you a fair shot at grabbing your dog’s attention so he’s raring to earn that paycheck.
When trying new and especially novel food rewards with your dog, be sure to consult your veterinarian and be mindful of foods that can cause health problems or trigger allergies. Don’t get discouraged if your dog’s nose turns up at your first choice — just try something else, and keep trying. Make your food rewards small in size but big in value, so you get more bang for your buck while avoiding stomach upset. And remember to pay your dog immediately every time he offers a behavior you’re trying to teach. If he does it, you better show him the money!
At San Francisco Animal Care & Control, our staff and volunteers rely on donations to supply our stressed and forlorn shelter dogs with high-value food motivators that help us get them through this difficult time in their lives. When we can train these dogs effectively by offering big paychecks (string cheese, hot dogs, cream cheese, squeeze cheese, cheddar cheese, and jars of baby food), we can help them build habits and behaviors that make their shelter visit more bearable and — ultimately — increase their adoptability.
If you’d like to help these dogs move on with their lives, please visit SFAnimalCe.org/make-a-donation to provide high-value food rewards and other donations to San Francisco Animal Care & Control, the city’s only open-admission shelter. Our dogs thank you.
Lauren Taylor works in the Behavior and Training Division at San Francisco Animal Care & Control, SFAnimalCare.org, as the training and behavior supervisor.
Shelter Zone features a shelter and rescue group each month. If you would like to contribute, contact Editor@BayWoof.com.
Main article photo by: Courtesy SFACC