Food For Thought... Pun Intended
Updated: Apr 27
I recently took on a new puppy client who impressed me with his overall dog savvy. Of course, the most impressive part of this to me is how much he loves his new puppy AND how invested he is in doing the right thing by this darling bundle of fluff. He told me that he had hastily signed up for a local puppy class, mostly for the playtime. His puppy had a good experience the first week, however when he pulled out some tasty treats to reinforce the puppy for disengaging from play to come back to him, he was promptly told by the trainer that they do not use food in the training program. The trainer explained that he wants puppies and dogs to comply just because they are told to do so, not because of the food.
Well, I would like to say to that: good luck! By nature, dogs are totally self-serving creatures. I know we all want to think that we are the center of their universe, but the reality of it is that dogs are motivated by food, by access to meaningful turf (think beds, couches, under the dinner table) and by whatever else motivates them to get what they want. When I hear of trainers that are resistant to using food, it always raises a red flag. I mean, think about it – dogs get fed at least once, if not twice a day for free, out of a bowl that is placed on the ground, but you don’t want to use food in training when the dog is actually earning it?? Makes NO sense to me!
What I will say about using food in training is that you must learn how to phase it out properly. I think this is why food sometimes still gets a bad rap in the dog training world. Once you have trained a behavior to a reliable place (if I bet you $50 your dog would perform said behavior) you then must start randomizing the food rewards. Maybe you reward every other sit or down or stay, and then every third or fifth time, etc. I usually recommend rewarding the fastest sit or the speediest or most enthusiastic recall. In other words, pick the finest of the behaviors you are training and reward those, but always praise your dog for making a good choice, even if it takes a little time. In large part, my training programs are food centered because food works beautifully and quickly for MOST dogs. Once again, your dog has to eat, right? Let’s make that work for us.
For new puppies, I always recommend carrying around a Ziploc full of their regular food, assuming it is a dry kibble. If not, use something small and soft. This is your time to start reinforcing all of the things that you like and want to nurture in your puppy. It is such a missed opportunity to NOT use food to your advantage with a hungry puppy! This also holds true for newly adopted dogs of any age. I would ask this question to prove my point: do you get paid for your day job? I am assuming that most people who have a regular job will receive a paycheck for their efforts. Consider food rewards your dog’s paycheck. No, it is not bribery if they are working for it. When it becomes bribery is when the dog will not offer anything unless there is food present, which is not what I want for any of my clients.
Top 5 high value treats – a treat should be the size of your pinky fingernail and should be soft to avoid any sort crunch, which just stifles momentum.
Organic hotdogs, without nitrates and garbage
Fresh chicken pieces
Small bits of deli meat
Bits of liver (if you can stomach it)
If food is used correctly, I find there is no easier or quicker way to achieve your goals, however, positive training certainly is not synonymous with food. You can use play, attention, tug games, chase, even territory marking! I love to think outside the box on this, but this trainer will always have food at the top of the list!
All for now!