The whys and hows of using food in dog training, article by Canis bonus. November 2016
Author: Laure-Anne Visele.
Illustration credits at the end of the post.
Clients’ names and other recognizable features have been changed to respect their privacy.
About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague
I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.
I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).
If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.
Using food in dog training
I was packing up my laptop after a seminar I gave when a students lurked behind. He had a burning question, I could tell, and he didn’t dare ask it. Finally, he approached me and said: “I don’t want to use food for training my dog…” I looked at him, intrigued. “He should just listen,” he continued.
So I put my things away, sat down and listened to his story.
His dog barked all the time, he explained, so he just said ‘tsss!’ to get the dog to shut up. He’d never needed food for this, he pointed out. “Have the ‘tsss’ helped?” I asked. “Most of the time,” he said. “Sometimes, when he’s really wound up, I give him a little finger jab on his side to snap him out of it.” And there it was… The nasty cycle of punishment. Either it’s so mild that the dog gets used to it, or it is so nasty it becomes unethical. It starts with the ‘tsss’, escalates to the jab, and, before you know it, the dog becomes terrified of the owner’s hands for fear he’s in for another ‘alpha-roll.’ An alpha roll is a sad throwback from Neanderthalean dog training times when you were told to pin your dog to the ground to show him who’s boss. Believe it or not, I still see traumatized dogs in my dog behaviour therapy practice who were raised like this at the PUPPY school, LAST YEAR! Thankfully, you can now report these schools to the Dutch animal protection agency (call 144 if you’re based in The Netherlands. They’re lovely!).
A few years ago, I would have ranted and railed at my student. But I hear these stories daily. I also don’t think the blame is with the dog’s owner, but with the dog professionals (books, celebrities, or next-door trainers) who keep promoting such over-simplistic methods.
The nasty ‘should’ of dog training
Violence aside, things tend to start going wrong the second they think their dog “should” be like this, that or the other.
My student, it turns out, had expected Lassie but got Santa’s Little Helper (the Simpsons’ dog). He feels he should have Lassie, but I see he does have Santa’s Little Helper. Who do you think will get better results? The should or the does guy?
He’s not alone: most dogs aren’t all that obsessed about pleasing us. Staying out of trouble and getting treats is where it’s at. Most dogs are utter lemons for the most basic things: very very very slow students. For some of them, we need to break the sit down to its components before the dog gets it. Most of them need quite a bit of supervision before they finally get it into their heads that no, the food on the coffee table is not for self-service.
The truth is: polite and relaxed family dogs don’t come out of the box. You’ll need to shape them into the best family dog your dog can be. Nearly every dog has minor issues. None of them is perfect from the start. You can look at your neighbour’s dog with envy, but I can guarantee he isn’t perfect behind closed doors.
Stop training for the dog you should have and start raising the dog you do have.
So why use food to train dogs, why not play, petting, praise?
Nothing is wrong with petting as a reward if the dog sees it as a reward. But we see most dogs back away when their owners pet them as a reward. In our experience, food is the highest motivator for dogs. And it’s plain easier than alternatives:
- I can time the start/end of the reward better than with, say, a game of Frisbee. I want to be able to reward every other second on occasion, and a game of Frisbee just doesn’t lend itself to that.
- Most dogs find food intrinsically rewarding, whereas praise tends to pale in comparison.
Why give food so often in dog training?
At our own training school (OhMyDog, Den Haag), we recommend students bring A HUNDRED AND FIFTY small pieces of food with them as a bare minimum. Turning up with a couple of Frolics won’t cut it. Some of our clients are shocked by how often we reward the dog during tougher exercises. Nando Brown, a fellow trainer, has a brilliant saying for this: “It’s not gold, people.”
The reason we reward often is we ‘shape’ good behaviour: we reward tiny approximations towards our goal. For a challenging exercise, the dog might not know what we want, so we play a game of warmer-colder to help them along the way. Example: I am teaching a dog to stay calm in the presence of another dog. At the start, I might have to reward every single time he looks at the other dog.
But won’t the dogs get obese?
Let’s switch things around here: let’s stop giving dogs food just like that, for free, in a dish, and let’s have play and work for it. Every morning, you put his daily allowance in a container, then give him a small breakfast (in a food dispensing toy). Then, use the food from the container to give him his training rewards throughout the day. If he has some left over in the evening, you can always give it to him in a food dispensing toy.
Result? You have rewarded the dog a million times today, using food, and he had to burn calories getting it – oh, and ‘cognitively feeding’ as we call it, is also nature’s best anxiolytic.
Dog food quality over quantity: When you reward the dog, don’t give him a whole Frolic. Don’t even give him a quarter of a Frolic. Give him a millionth of a Frolic. Just enough that he gets a satisfying taste. What counts isn’t how much you give but how you give it. Give it in a way that builds up suspense, that is playful, that will keep him on his toes about the next morsel. Some of my personal favorites:
- I slam the treat on the ground, covering it up with my hand, then removing my hand
- I toss the treat, sending it rolling, encouraging the dog to chase after it
- I toss it high up in the air, leaving the dog perplexed for a second, then excited and happy when he hears the treat land.
- I toss it in the dog’s mouth, letting him catch it in the air
But really, there are millions of ways. Just use your imagination. If you’re interested in cognitive feeding, I wrote tons of ideas for you here.
Some problems with using food in dog training
- If your dog is getting too excited about the food, give him tiny morsels of less delicious food.
- If your dog gets aggressive about food, contact a local behaviour therapist. Here is some help in choosing a good one. If you are in The Hague or region, get in touch with me.
- If your dog isn’t that interested in food, try smellier, stickier and more fun. You can also pretend you are eating the food. That works… a treat (excuse the pun).
So how do I wean off the dog?
You can get less generous with the treats for stuff he can do with his eyes closed. For things he still finds challenging, make treat delivery extremely fun. Reward the dog every time he behaves well in a situation that he finds tricky. Every – time. Every time your serial puller doesn’t pull during a walk: treat. Every time he looks at another dog and stays calm: treat. You get the gist. If he starts to find this dead easy, then start treating less generously, and less often.
And that, my friends, is how you get a dog who wants to train, enjoys your company, trusts you, doesn’t get obese and, isn’t scared of your hand!
- Santa’s Little Helper: Courtesy of CitySkylineSouvenir. Downloaded on 15 September 2016 from Flickr CC (CC0 Public Domain)
- Fat man: Courtesy of Clker-Free-Vctor-Images. Downloaded on 4 November 2016 from Pixabay (CC0 Public Domain)