Food Is Not A Problem

small black dog with cottage cheese container in his mouthThis morning my mother was having her breakfast and on the TV was an early morning cooking show.  She remarked, “I don’t know why I watch these shows, I don’t even like to cook.”

Food is a primary reinforcer. Looking at it feels good, thinking about it feels good. Mmmm..hand churned ice cream with fresh peaches, sweet corn on the grill, garden fresh salsa with just picked cilantro. That’s why you keep watching, mum.

In the world of dog training food is still being given a bad rap by some. The misuse of food as a bribe is often cited as reason to avoid using it. The argument that dogs become dependent on food would almost be funny if folks weren’t serious when they made it. I have yet to sort out how to break my dogs’ dependency on eating.

Different dog trainer camps each have their own set of premises as to why they prefer not to use food in training. And ironically enough on the spectrum of trainers understanding how behavior works (from haven’t a clue to enough understanding to make stuff up and sound like they know what they’re talking about), and developing a method or style, both the dominance and force-free advocates have adopted other supposedly more natural alternatives.

Years ago I ran into a neighbor who had purchased two chocolate lab sister pups. I asked if she was planning on breeding them. “No,” she answered. How about spaying them? “No,” again. “Why not?” I queried. “Because it’s not natural,” she claimed. Had I been drinking coffee there’s a good chance it would have come out of my nose. Natural!? As IF there is anything natural about a chocolate lab (no offense to them or any other breed of dog). The pressures of artificial selection have created very different animals than the pressures natural selection would have created.

This hasn’t stopped trainers from jumping on board the it’s natural bandwagon (I have yet to understand how food has been relegated unnatural, and am not going to spend much time on trying). There are the trainers who seem to be taking their lead from dogs from another planet, those mother dogs who use bites to the neck and muzzle holds to teach their puppies how to walk more slowly on leash, come when called, or poop outside and not in the house (that those mums start out by eating their puppies’ poop is natural enough but few recommend owners go that route). And the trainers who extoll natural, organic, functional rewards (other than food) for training behaviors such as stop running away from me and turn and come to me, or stay in a crate for hours, a behavior which I daresay might be as unnatural as it gets as far as a dog is concerned. Some leap of logic has been made that even though we are going to train behaviors that go against what is likely very much in a dog’s nature; chase stuff, chew stuff, eat stuff, shred stuff, guard stuff, pee on stuff, we are obliged to do so by someone’s random definition of what constitutes natural.

Most troubling are the trainers who just flat out do not understand how counterconditioning works and avoid using food to create positive associations with triggers. Or fail to see how the use of food in operant conditioning can impact the dog’s emotional response to where the food is being given, what’s around, and probably most importantly the handler who’s supplying it, right along with performing the behavior itself. Those who assert that the dog’s good feelings when food is used only applies to the food, and not the handler providing it, are identifying themselves as lacking an understanding in classical conditioning, and it’s value to us.

Before anyone feels the need to comment and remind me that there are other things besides food that dogs can find positively reinforcing and motivating, I get it. I’m not arguing against the use of whatever a dog finds positively reinforcing in training, but those dogs who needed help yesterday and those dogs today who remain wary and fearful or are facing being returned to a rescue or shelter, or euthanized because they didn’t get the memo that they should be able to be trained or counter conditioned without the use of food, are the victims of the very bad advice to avoid using or minimize the use of food in training.

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32 comments so far

  1. rangerskat on

    “Those who assert that the dog’s good feelings when food is used only applies to the food, and not the handler providing it, are identifying themselves as lacking an understanding in classical conditioning, and it’s value to us.”

    Anyone who thinks food rewards can’t influence feelings has clearly never lived with my Finna or a dog like her. Four years into this adventure she’s OK with my husband most of the time but she finds him terrifying if he’s carrying anything. He’s never done anything to her with anything he was carrying so presumably this is a holdover from some dark chapter in her past. The exception to this when he’s holding her dinner bowl or a treat for her in addition to whatever else he might have in his hands. When he has food for her he isn’t scary. It’s as simple as that. Currently we’re working on having him also pick up a treat for her when he picks up anything else and having him not give her treats unless he’s holding something else. He doesn’t think in terms of dog training so the effort has been spotty but I figure every time she gets rewarded by Dad who has something else in his hands is a step in the right direction.

    When I’m training with her she often prefers fetch or tug for reward unless it’s a new behavior we’re working on then food is the preference.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Fear is so very sticky, and why we have to be so careful with our dogs who are prone to being easily startled or scared. Good luck with training (your husband 😉

  2. Vince on

    Fried chicken, steak bits, Jarlsberg, Swiss, every treat and dog food imaginable; that was Ellie. She could pass ’em all. Yep she’d rather starve then do ANYTHING for me except ice cream and milk dipped graham crackers. Geez a bit hard to carry! Even the vet warned about that becoming a dependency. But that was the word “dependency”. Ellie needed to feel she could depend on me. Take a simple come. No _______way for years. Oh she’d come to Leslie. Ellie loves Frisbee. So it was not food it was “no scratch, no catch!” She got that. First brick off the wall. Maybe now I know how she thinks; my red headed Gemini.
    It’s always more than the method. It’s the time in for the time out. I was lucky and could do it. Broke me heart for a few years. Rescue dogs are like that; they need, well, rescuing. Am I off subject ?

  3. justthreadtwiddling on

    Food! What a load of problems it brings. Husbands are no different. My husband insists on feeding the dogs in the morning. When I was unable to convince him he was overfeeding them, I had to call on our vet to show him how much food met their caloric needs.. When I tried to explain why his people food treats weren’t good for him or the dogs (think salty chips) I needed HIS Dr. to reinforce! And when I caught him just tossing bits of cheese to them while he was fixing his own snack, I had to teach him how to make it a fun training exercise. Someday they may even give him a sit-stay!

  4. Debra Milam on

    Food and love go hand in hand or hand in mouth. My Mom fed me, I loved her. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, cake and pie. Yes, I know I would have loved her anyway, but it was a reinforcement. And I will always believe her cooking was the best in the world. My dogs love me, and I provide their food and treats (healthier than my aforementioned Mom’s cooking LOL, we have all learned a lot in the past 50 years). Love and whatever works for your pets is always the best way to go.

  5. Ingrid Bock on

    Thanks so much for this. Because I say this at least several times a week, I’m thrilled when I can share someone ELSE saying it. To pass on some encouragement, as I left opera rehearsal last night (kinda grumpy, honestly), lo and behold there was a one-year-old Yellow Lab with her people. People were pretty right-thinking and knowledgeable, but male was having the usual trouble about using food, especially since a breeder friend of his was pushing the New Sketers. By the end of our convo both of them were planning out how to keep the pup on a raw diet by making treats for her–talking about where to go for recipes. This time I believe it’s gonna stick, and I was very much cheered. Thank goodness, sometimes people listen. And that’s why it’s worth saying, over and over again. So thanks again for writing this.

  6. Natasha on

    Well said and direct as always! We are in the habit now, when A Person is sighted, of going to the boulevard, I give her treats or if I don’t want to wait for the person to walk a whole block before getting to us, I toss treats to get her head, and self, following me in the other direction. The other day we waited, and just as the woman got to us, she slowed to greet us. “She’s fearful, just keep going,please,” I said and realized I was out of treats. To my dismay, the woman crouched and held out her hand, and waved it. She was facing away a bit (has a shy dog herself and clearly got a B in Shy Dogs), but turned to look at Stoli a lot. So Stoli’s reacting, jumping around, I’m begging the woman to turn away and keep going, the woman keeps talking… And I realize poor Stoli, now accustomed to getting treats near strangers, is lunging forward to grab little pinecones thinking they are treats! And the woman takes that as success, and I’m digging for any more treats I can find… The poor girl, fighting off her fear for nothing, because treats ARE that important! I wanted to cry.

    • fearfuldogs on

      A good ‘get the heck out of dodge’ U-turn is great to practice for quick escapes from well-meaning people. “Sorry gotta go!”

      • Natasha on

        Yeah, only works with treats, funny thing…

  7. Catherine McBrien on

    It is completely beyond me why any rational person would not use food–something most dogs highly value–to reinforce positive behaviors or to create new positive associations with something that frightens the dog, i.e., counter conditioning.

    I always cite delivery people as the ultimate experts on dog training/counter conditioning because they have learned through practical experience (rather than ideology-based thinking) that feeding barking dogs does not precipitate more barking, but instead causes the dog to have a new positive association with the trigger and stop barking. The proof is in the pudding from their perspective.–and mine

    I fed my growly foster treats every time she growled and every day she growled less and less until she pretty much stopped growling in a few weeks. If food encouraged/rewarded her for growling–rather than changed the association with the trigger that prompted the growling– she obviously would have growled more and more, rather than less and less.

    Next foster I get like this I am definitely videoing to show the powerful effect of classical/counter conditioning. I most recently treated a neighbor’s reactive barker and she stopped barking for several seconds which she normally would have spent barking like a lunatic. One small treat had a positive effect on her negative reaction to seeing other dogs. I have no doubt that with proper counter conditioning, her reactive barking could be substantially ameliorated if not entirely eliminated. Yet nobody will be treating her during her reactive behaviors based on the mistaken notion that doing so will encourage more reactivity

    For me, refusing to use a powerful motivator like food is a sign of a warped simplistic perspective that fundamentally misunderstands animal behavior and attributes malign motives to a dog’s behavior where none exist. As you stated in one blog post, it is a big mistake to conclude that a teenager who failed to wash the dishes one night did so in an attempt to dominate his parents, rather than from simple thoughtlessness.

  8. Emma on

    It regularly baffles me..

    I went to a client with a really people-fearful dog.

    She said ‘well, of COURSE he likes YOU… you came armed with half a pound of cheese’…

    And she said that like thats a bad thing.. why on earth wouldn’t I stack the odds heavily in my favour, as heavily as I can, when turning up to see a dog I know has an issue with strangers.

    I’ll load up on the cheese and sausage in just the same way as I’ll avoiding walking at the dog or staring at him or making any sudden movements!

    I do think sometimes we humans have a real issue with doing things ‘the easy way’, like if theres an easy way and you take it, its not as good as doing it the harder way, the results aren’t as worthy somehow?

    Its a stupid attitude but I swear its there! I have genuinely had clients sound initally a bit let down that what I have set out for them to do is in fact EASY…

    Its bonkers, it really is.

    • fearfuldogs on

      For some reason we have adopted some kind of Puritan work ethic for dogs that is not applied to other animals. Farmers routinely carry pails of grain to go herd up the cows or sheep. When the animals return to their stalls or milking stations, they are fed.

      • Natasha on

        How would they know to follow you instead of a lampost otherwise? Duh!

    • Mel on

      Yes! I agree. People do seem to have an issue with doing things the easy way.

  9. bswnyca on

    thnx! dogs should come prestamped with I work for food.

  10. Robin on

    I notice sometimes when ‘trainers’ argue against food reinforcers and complain that a bad behavior is being wrongly rewarded, that timing of reward is off.
    And I heartily agree that many fearful traumatized dogs are returned or abandoned, usually more traumatized than before.
    I don’t know how to get the word out- food reinforcement creates not only a positive association with a trigger, it can increase the bond between the canine and human.
    I was, at one time, someone who believed food reinforcements would only spoil and overfeed the dog. He should behave because hearing “good dog” is so wonderful, he wants to hear it over and over.
    I soon learned that no amount of ‘good dog’ helps when a car backfiring sends my dog fleeing blindly onto a 4 lane highway, and at that point, it would have been too late had I not “woken up.”
    Yes , she gets food rewards nearly every time a car backfires and she startles, but looks at me instead of bolting. The times with only verbal or play rewards happen , too, but these are rewarding to her because of our bond.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Behavior is lawful. The matching law is either our friend or comes back and bites us in the bum.

  11. JoE on

    Oh, jeez, can we just keep saying this! Food is our friend.

    I had a (food) success recently with my generally non-fearful dog. We were at a seminar a year ago, and when a roomful of people broke into enthusiastic applause, he absolutely freaked.

    We spent time counter-conditioning (using my obedience class, starting with one person clapping, then two, then three, etc.), and I was rewarded last weekend when I had him at a friend’s function and a roomful of people started applauding. He was off leash, playing with some kids, and I startled, but he just flung up his head and came trotting over for his treat. Food works.

  12. bernecho on

    I remember being admonished by a trainer for using food. I asked for a refund for my seminar attendance because obviously she must work for free!

  13. Mel on

    All of this. Yes.

    I have never understood why someone would choose pain over pain-free training either, but I guess I never will. I’m all for the things that help motivate a dog and change their association to things, people and places. That includes food.

    Nice piece Debbie.

  14. pancake on

    Sorry for the rant below; this has been bugging me for a while. The short version is that people humanize their dogs and refuse to view them as what they ultimately are, boiled down: fairly simple input/output machines. The tendency to humanize them leads to thinking they are capable of spite and respect, and so any failures in training are blamed on the dog being spiteful or dominant. They view treat-training negatively because that method actually treats dogs like what they are – dogs. If dogs are just dogs and not capable of all these human reasons for misbehaving, it takes away people’s excuses for failing at training. Not to say that failing at training isn’t perfectly normal, it happens to everyone, but anti-treat people don’t seem able to admit when they’ve failed and like to blame it on the dog instead of themselves.

    ——- And now for the actual rant.

    This always leaves me baffled. Somehow, positive reinforcement trainers have the reputation of being “cookie-pushers,” as if we’re giving them away for free. My dog works for all of his food. I frequently wind up pointing out that other people’s dogs are, in fact, freeloaders. Oddly, the type of people who are anti-treats are usually the same people who think that humans should never be handed anything they didn’t earn – but somehow they’re incapable of applying that logic to dogs.

    There’s this weird idea that dogs should work in exchange for respect. Respect is terrible currency. I don’t work for respect. The closest thing is maybe volunteering, but that’s not done to get respect. It’s because it makes me feel good that I’m contributing something, and the only reason that works as a reinforcer for me is because I have a moral compass. Dogs don’t.

    This cognitive dissonance is so bizarre. Somehow, I’m accused of babying my dog and treating it like a human because I 1) use positive reinforcement, and 2) treat my dog with the respect a sentient creature deserves, and yet it’s almost always anti-treat people who are attaching human emotions, morality, and responsibility to their dogs (if the dog doesn’t do something, it’s because “they’re angry, spiteful, deliberately trying to make a snarky point”).

    So, ultimately, I guess I think that people are anti-treats for two reasons. One, because they’re too emotional about dogs. They can’t seem to step back and see a dog as a dog – a pretty simple animal when it comes down to it. If a dog isn’t listening, it’s because the dog “doesn’t want to”, which only works if you think of the dog as human. The real reason is a failure to train, which brings me to number two. Nobody wants to admit that they’ve failed at training. It’s far easier to blame the dog peeing on the carpet on the dog’s stupidity or spitefulness than it is to admit that they did something incorrectly. This moves cyclically: Dog does something “bad” -> Owner views it as a deliberate spiteful or dominant act -> conclusion is that dog needs to have more respect for owner -> Owner tries to instil respect through punishment and dominance -> Training fails -> Dog does something “bad”. Somehow this rarely leads to it clicking that the methods aren’t working.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I guess I don’t see dogs as simply input output machines, being able to learn via both classical, operant conditioning, social facilitation, etc., seems pretty sophisticated to me, but that’s an aside. Good training mechanics are good training mechanics whether you love the animal or just need to put a behavior on them. And positive reinforcement gets us great results.

  15. DRicard on

    I want to print this out and hand it out to everyone I know! I am a volunteer basic obedience trainer at a humane society and I always get accused of trying to be the “favorite” instructor to many of the dogs that come through our classes. The reason for this: I am very generous when it comes to treat (and also attention) distribution and I usually bring high value treats. So many people don’t understand how powerful good treats can be. We have had several dogs who were fear aggressive towards people and there hasn’t been one I couldn’t bribe into allowing me to interact with them using pieces of a slow cooked beef roast. The best thing is that this method isn’t just for fearful dogs, it applies to almost every dog! Even the high energy, short attention span dogs have much longer periods of focus when someone involves chicken. My goal of generous treating in class isn’t to spoil the dogs (ok, I do spoil them sometimes), but to teach fearful dogs that we don’t always need to be afraid, and to teach all dogs that when we use polite behavior we will be rewarded and this even extends to strangers.

    • fearfuldogs on

      You are welcome to share the post along with where it came from. I’m happy to help get this information into people’s heads. Working for food is not an indication of a moral failing in dogs.

  16. Michelle Porterfield on

    We have a 7 month old sheltie that is starting to fear certain things. (He won’t come in the back door, and noises- not just loud ones). We are trying the treats and positive reinforcement. However, he could care less about treats. Sometimes works and other times they don’t. Any other suggestions? He was not always like this.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Sound sensitivities are considered by some vet behaviorists to be medical emergencies. Consulting with a vet and/or a vet behaviorist may be your best shot at helping your pup.


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