Is Food Really the Problem?

boy in chair and 4 dogs looking at him

Guess what these dogs are looking forward to getting?

From the comments I’ve been hearing and the stuff I’ve been reading on the internet one would be inclined to think that the use of food in training poses great problems or risks. I cannot think of one conversation I’ve had with a trainer who laments that their clients reinforce behaviors with food too much. Indeed it’s usually the opposite. Having trouble with the duration of a down/stay? I’d put money on that it’s because the behavior is not being reinforced with food soon or often enough, or in the right place. Dog won’t come when called? Put me down for a fiver for the same reason.

I’m not suggesting that there are not other reinforcers that can be as effective as food or that we don’t need to be aware of how we use food in training, but do we really need to be out there warning pet owners about the dangers of using food to train their dogs? Have we already won the battle of helping owners understand how positive reinforcement works and how to implement it in their relationship with their dog? And so what if a dog likes steak?

If you get dog as a pup it’s likely that you’ll have the opportunity to create hundreds, hopefully thousands, of positive associations between you and good things or events in the dog’s life. Well-handled young pups will often follow us around regardless of whether we have a treat in hand or pocket, our shoe laces may be the draw along with our companionship. We have become conditioned reinforcers to our dog through the lovely organic process of living gently and playfully with a social animal. It’s not so seamless with rehomed dogs, and even more challenging with scared dogs.

If we are lucky someone along the way has provided a dog with a reason for feeling good about people. My border collie, adopted at least 2 other times from what I know about his history, was given the gift of learning to love as only some dogs can, catching and retrieving frisbees. When life seems uncertain and perhaps a little scary, there’s always frisbee. That my dogs who are not 100% comfortable with people will perform behaviors in order to get a tidbit of treat is a blessing for all of us. Sure the vet smells funny and wields tools of ear and anal prodding capability, but there’s always gorgonzola to mitigate the discomfort.

Travel anywhere in the developing world and the most common relationship you’ll see between people and dogs is based on food. Dogs follow children who drop crumbs of bread, or they hang out at roadside food stands gobbling up discards. I am aware of those torturous studies done on baby monkeys that showed that they spent more time hanging onto a soft facsimile of mother monkey compared to the wire mother monkey who provided milk. I am not attempting to downplay the relationship we can create with our dogs that does not include food or that animals derive comfort and relief in a variety of physical ways other than through eating.

Can our relationships go beyond food? Of course they can, and do. But so what if food plays a major role in that relationship, at anytime during its creation? Try and tell a grandmother that her corned beef with carrots or key lime pie don’t matter in her relationship with her grandchildren. Try believing it yourself the next time you plan a party and decide that the food you serve doesn’t matter. It may not be just about the food, but the food is definitely part of the equation. Our social engagements don’t have to include food, but interestingly they often do.

If a dog is only responding to an owner because of the promise of food, the food is not the problem, and the relationship might not be the problem either. Advising pet owners to ditch the food treats and replace it with “relationship” may not be prudent. Food is a part of the relationship and may be the only salient reinforcer a new pet owner has to use with their dog. And I say, “So what?” By pairing interactions with their owner with food the “feel good” power of a primary reinforcer rubs off on them. Instead of warning owners off of food we should be instructing them on how to use it effectively for creating strong, reliable behaviors. That one can over-hydrate and die is not a reason to advise against drinking water. “Stop using food” is one of the most misguided pieces of advice I’ve heard today.


27 comments so far

  1. rangerskat on

    I use everything that Finna likes as reinforcement. She likes food a lot so I use it a lot. I also can learn a lot about how she’s feeling by whether and how she takes the food. I find the food clues much clearer than when I use a toy so that’s another good reason to use food.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      No reason to take away something that can help so many dogs feel better about life 😉

      • rangerskat on

        Not to mention how empowering it is for dogs when they realize they can control the good things happening by their behavior. Finna, ” you mean, I can make treats rain from the sky just by sitting quietly while the scary dad rushes around unpredictably? wow, this is like the coolest thing ever!”

      • Debbie Jacobs on

        It is beautiful to see happen.

  2. Truth Exists (@Get_Truth_Serum) on

    Agree w author, but I see people rewarding (mostly verbally) dogs in the wrong situations, rewarding misbehavior. Baby talking, offering treats when Fido is chewing the couch, trying to entice it to behave? Won’t they surmise, the dogs, that they have been doing something right?

    • fearfuldogs on

      If we see more of a behavior it’s being reinforced, by us or by the activity itself. Fido might continue to chew the couch whether the owner offered treats or baby talk or not. Some behaviors reinforce themselves. In this case there is no training going on. Dogs chew. Give them something appropriate to chew and remove access to the couch. From a dog’s point of view chewing almost anything is right.

  3. Catherine McBrien on

    I am just astounded that anybody would recommend not using treats. I am eternally thankful that Gracie–my shyest one–is so treat -oriented because all of the incredible progress she has made is directly related to treats, combined with her trust in me. Treats are like little magic training pills as far as I’m concerned.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      It is not unusual for pet owners to end up using a lot of bribing to get behaviors from their dogs, and we know that with competing motivators for behavior, bribes often don’t work. But the problem isn’t the use of food, it’s how the food is being used.

  4. Kim on

    Thank you, Debbie. I too am beyond tired of hearing how we HAVE to wean off food and onto other reinforcers ASAP. WHY Even if the relationship is not the problem, what is wrong with using food and continuing to use food? I expect a paycheck for the rest of my working years, why shouldn’t my dogs have one?

    And I also know from experience how working with food can BUILD a relationship.

    So I, for one, intend to keep on feeding my dogs when they work for me. it works for us and we are happy with it. I have no care what anyone else thinks.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      I think it’s great to encourage people to develop better relationships with their dogs, to give their dogs lots of reasons for paying attention to them, but the idea that we must “lose the food” in order for us to believe we will have a well-trained dog is silly. Unless someone is competing in some kind of sport that doesn’t allow the use of food in the ring what difference does it make if a pet owner sticks a hand full of treats in the pocket every time they head out the door with their dog? You’d think we were suggesting people strap on backpacks with rocks in them.

      • Helen Gruenhut on

        I have never seen a top trainer that did not reward the dog, with food, about
        three or four times more, and more often, than the normal dog trainer.
        The only problem is that I haveI have is a small dog, that cannot have all those treats,
        or fat he goes; or is that me and my treats? Chocolate will train me well.

  5. Linda Trunell on

    I would rather carry some treats with me than a remote control for an e-collar. Dogs need reinforcement and food is a primary reinforcer as is avoidance of pain. Which one would you prefer?

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      I should clarify that many of the people suggesting that food be removed from the equation are not recommending that aversives be used in its place. I think it’s easier to show someone how to deliver a food reward than it is to get them to change the fundamental relationship they have with their dog, even if the relationship needs changing. Get a dog to perform a few simple behaviors on cue and I think it ends up changing the relationship.

      • Linda Trunell on

        You’re right, Debbie. Sorry – I didn’t mean to insinuate that. I just had an encounter with another “trainer” at the dog park who was carrying a remote and snickered at my treat bag. Guess my hackels were still up. 😉

      • Debbie on

        No worries, I was just clarifying. Don’t want to get anyone’s hackles up 😉

        Debbie Jacobs

      • Linda Trunell on

        “hackles” typo

  6. Frances on

    My neighbour has a friend visiting with a nervous, ex-breeding chihuahua. Having seen how quickly he warmed up when he discovered I had chicken, and how much his confidence grew when he learned that the turn taking game meant he didn’t have to compete with the other dogs for it, I can’t understand anyone denigrating such a pleasant and useful tool. The food gave him a reason to start to build a relationship – without it he would have stayed firmly behind the sofa! I have a very good relationship with my dogs, but I still use treats as part of building and maintaining it, and not just as rewards for responding to cues. Used badly I suppose it could lead to a massively overweight dog who looks for the chunks of chicken before bothering to listen to what the human is saying, but I suspect both dog and human in that scenario have much bigger problems than simply losing the food!

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Hopefully your friend experienced a teachable moment and learned something about the power of chicken.

  7. Donna in VA on

    I see many people out walking their dogs with only the leash and pick-up bags. I always wonder why they aren’t carrying treats, especially when it seems the dogs could use a little behavior reinforcement. I really only use treats outside the house, for specific things and the dog seems to accept this. Interesting, I have also found out that the quality of the treat does not seem to matter too much – it can be a small, dry piece of kibble, or a soft bacon-type treat and I don’t see any difference in enthusiasm. I think it’s the consistency and expectation being met that is important to him – me noticing that yes, he just did a “good” thing. The token gesture of offering the treat is more important than the treat itself.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      We can raise the value of a food reward by asking the dog to perform a behavior in order to get it. But I have also seen a huge difference in compliance when I switch from a usual treat to something new and stinky. Typically the speed of response increases for me. But something is better than nothing and it’s really not that difficult to stick a few bits of kibble in a pocket.

  8. lcyambor on

    Use what works. Let anyone who tells u otherwise walk in your shoes for a week without food. This goes for those who like to offer parenting advise or comments in public places.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Use what works and if something that should work, isn’t, consider why that might be.

  9. hipparchia on

    “Try and tell a grandmother that her corned beef with carrots or key lime pie don’t matter in her relationship with her grandchildren. Try believing it yourself the next time you plan a party and decide that the food you serve doesn’t matter.”

    i’ve been a life-long believer in bonding with my animal friends – dogs, cats, horses, hamsters, gerbils, birds, even fish in a fish tank – over yummy food. i’ve never been able to come up with just the right human-human analogy for why they should use yummy food with their pets too when people admonish me for “spoiling” or “bribing” mine, but this is a good one.

    “the lovely organic process of living gently and playfully with a social animal.”

    my parents raised us kids to treat all living beings, human or otherwise, this way, so i’ve always been a life-long believer in this too.

    people sometimes marvel at how polite and well-behaved my dogs/cats/horses are/were and ask “how did you do that?” if we’re sitting on a bench in the dog park, or out on our horses on a trail ride, and someone asks that, i sometimes get into the broader philosophy, but mostly i just default to “my pets love me for the yummy food i give them.” there’s more than just food that goes into building a relationship of course, but i find it baffling (and aggravating) that people think that removing one of their pet’s great pleasures from its life is somehow a good thing.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Removing a great pleasure….very good way to think about what it is we are doing when we refuse to use food as a reinforcer.

  10. Laura Brody on

    I tell my clients that there are lots of reinforcements for desired behaviors. In their tool box of rewards, and let’s be honest, a reward is defined by it’s ability to create a repeat performance of whatever got the dog the reward, there are activities, toys and food. When clients ask me when they can stop using food, I tell them, “Never”. I want them to recognize that they will always be using food as a reward. The question is, what will they be rewarding. Example, you buy your dog a box of dog cookies. You open the box, tell the dog to sit and toss the cookie high in the air for him to catch. You’ve just rewarded with food. The fact that you didn’t get creative about what you asked the dog to do is the critical piece. Every time you put a bowl of dog food down, you’re rewarding the dog with food. Every time you drop a chip on the floor and your dog gobbles it up, you’re rewarding your dog with food. I advise people to be honest about what they really want. They want a dog who will respond after one command. And they can have it if they understand the powerful use of rewards and how not to waste a perfectly good training moment.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I have blog post in mind that will hitchhike quite nicely on your comment about wasting a good training moment. 😉

  11. rmmcgold29 on

    Hi! I really like this post! I agree with you, I think that if people are worried that they are feeding their dog too much when performing a lot of training, I always suggest using their kibble as rewards and feeding them the majority of their breakfast or dinner while training.I completely agree that food should be apart of the training relationship we have with our pets, and that people need to be weary of using food as “love”.

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