Is Food Useless in Training? | My Journey to Balance

I’ve had this one in the hopper for a little while because I wanted to work some things out in my own mind before I wrote this post. That being said, I hope you enjoy this because I’ve been thinking about writing it for a while now.

When I first started googling dog training solutions for my dog (my wife’s dog) Rocky, like many people I encountered a lot of what appeared to be dogmatic literature about the use of food and the labels you would have to wear should you decide to use punishment or anything other than what was considered a “force free” approach. The dog training world still uses the “Scarlett A” approach when it comes to trainers who use punishment or pressure from the negative end of the spectrum, but I’ve moved way past that. There’s a ton of dogs who have been on the end of my leash that couldn’t even consider the amount I’m using “aversive” and ultimately, I’m listening to the dog I’m training WAY more than the trainers who are observing.

Whenever you start getting into something new, it’s hard to challenge what you read because you know nothing. This is especially the case when it comes from so many different sources. Not to mention that, so many of these sources were quoting science as their foundation and like many others I thought if science said it must be true. I’ve since learned that in the science world there’s a split between “good science” and “bad science”.

Is nothing sacred anymore?

I got myself a clicker, I got some high value treats and I went to work solving Rocky’s leash aggression, predatory fixations and horrendous manners while walking. In the early stages when our training area was my wife’s apartment Rocky excelled, but after a bit when I attempted to take the training into the world is when it started to fail. Yielding to the knowledge of what I thought were industry leading professionals and seasoned veterans I opted to not correct my dog (anymore) and instead up the value of the reward as the trainers had suggested on my forum posts. I knew something was either lacking from my knowledge or lacking from the approach when steak filled my bait bag and Rocky still couldn’t care less about me or my wants for training.

This was a drastic shift from my pre-google research when the extent of my dog knowledge was three

Ramses the Golden Retriever and his humans do some Food and Ecollar work to sharpen up his RECALL
Ramses the Golden Retriever and his humans do some Food+Ecollar work to sharpen up his RECALL

seasons of The Dog Whisperer and humans who “knew a thing or two about dogs because they grew up with one”. I hadn’t seen the complete results I wanted from either, but I was driven to push on and not accept defeat. When I finally had enough and decided to give Rocky a nice firm pop and I was surprised to find his demeanor change as quickly as Katy Perry’s custom at a live concert. I want to make it clear that the “pop” that I gave Rocky wasn’t even overly firm—I would rank it a 4/10 on my firmness scale. That was all that was needed though and I had engagement for the rest of the session without having to administer the punishment again and he went on to enjoy his steak.

Now the problem I made here was generalizing to quickly. I didn’t think to myself “food isn’t effective with my dog”, I thought “food doesn’t work, period.” When I found a group of trainers online who rarely (if ever) used food and often referred to is as bribing the dog for something he should do respectfully when asked. This resonated with me having formed my own bias around the idea of both the use of food in training and corrections in training. Nobody was telling me corrections weren’t effective because I watched how effective they were with my own dog. Likewise, nobody was about to tell me how effective food was either. Those people had obviously never encountered a dog like mine (a naïve thought).

I believed this for a long time and though I would, from time to time, use food in training it was only because the dog I was working with needed it but it certainly wasn’t something I was going to do with a dog from the start or as a default.

Last summer I had my eyes opened by a friend and mentor and since then have been considering and experimenting with the use of food in my training. There’s a few things that I’ve realized in the past few months of using food a little bit more in training and one of those things is not all dogs benefit from the addition of food in training. Some dogs do really well without and others don’t require the extra pump of excitement that food brings to the table—these dogs might still get food in training but food is then used as a distraction instead of “motivation”.

Perhaps one of the most important things I learned in these last few months when it comes to food in training is something that I used to say all the time and something I hear a lot of my clients say during evaluations:

My dog isn’t motivated by food

Now, at first I believed this too. When you hold a piece of steak in front of your dog’s nose and he doesn’t break eye contact with the squirrel he’s fixated on, you make that assumption pretty quickly. The problem was one I hadn’t even considered until talking to a buddy of mine. So let’s look at food in training from my new filter on it!

My Dog Has No Work Ethic

When someone tells me now that their dog doesn’t have any motivation for food, I have to laugh under my breath—I’m laughing with you not at you, I made the same mistake. You see, when you think about it this is a fairly funny statement. Saying a dog isn’t motivated by food is about the same as a human saying they aren’t motivated by oxygen. It’s required for survival, so it must be something they are willing to work for. They do it in the wild, why don’t they want to work for it when it’s coming from you? Well, simply put, they get it for free so why work for it?

When people say “my dog isn’t food motivated”, what they really mean is “my dog has no work ethic”. Let me explain why this is the case.

When people say “my dog isn’t food motivated”, what they really mean is “my dog has no work ethic”

In the wild, nothing is free. When you’re hungry, you must search, track, hunt and kill your prey before you even get to the eating part. This has many side effects on a dog’s behaviour, the most important being a wild dog won’t needlessly waste calories and they also won’t turn away food. If you’re a wild dog and you come upon a dead carcass, you don’t turn it down because “you know you’ll get something to eat later”. You eat when the opportunity is provided unless you just got finished eating. This is the mindset I want to bring back in a dog I opt to train using some food for one main purpose: I want him to choose food over the stressor or distraction we’re working around because food becomes less “guaranteed”.

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Building a working drive for food is not hard, but there’s many human emotions that come into play in the process. The process is actually quite easy:

  1. Insure your dog is getting the RIGHT AMOUNT of food. Feel your dogs ribs… if you can’t feel a vague outline while running your fingers over them softly, your dog can loose a few pounds. Decrease your dog’s food by about 20% at first and keep an eye on his weight. 1 pounds a week is good weight loss but any more than that is a cause for concern.
  2. Put the dog on a structured feeding routine. This means they only get food twice a day (three times if they are still a puppy) and if after 30 minutes the dog hasn’t consumed the meal, or isn’t actively consuming the meal, it gets put away until the next opportunity to eat. Decreasing his food will also create more desire to eat when food is available so that’s an important step too!
  3. Don’t freak out when the dog doesn’t eat! Dogs can last quite a while without food (especially if they’re tenderly plump) if they have access to clean water and aren’t expending a ton of calories. It’s important to recognize we’re not depriving the dog of his food, we’re just changing the economics of how he gets it. This is like putting a spoiled child on a chores list to earn the money he once got for free… there’s going to be push back because the older way of doing things was way easier!
  4. Be consistent. don’t allow snacks and food at other opportunities just because your dog gets pushy or demands food.
  5. Once the dog is eating well from a bowl on a schedule, we can work from the hand and make it a little play session. If our dog flat out refuses to eat from our hand, we can toss the food but be keenly aware of the difference between a scared dog who can’t take the pressure and a bratty dog who’s looking to manipulate his environment with stubbornness. BIG DIFFERENCE.
  6. Use food in training in the below contexts as I use them OR as you please. At least now you have a dog who is more in tune with his nature. Who consumes food when available instead of waiting for the ‘free stuff’

The Motivation Trap

Instead of using food as “motivation”, I use it for teaching then fade quickly when the skill is learned and layer soft pressure in. What’s the difference you might ask? When you use food to teach a task, the behaviour is learned but is not contingent on the food being present. When food is used as the motivation for a behaviour, when the food goes away, guess what happens to the behaviour? Asta la vista, baby. One way of curing this issue is by adding contrast from the other side of the motivational spectrum. If we’re using food, it makes sense to balance it out. Why? To avoid the “motivation” trap. Many dogs I’ve seen who are amazing when there’s “something in it for them” blow their owners off when food goes bye-bye. The problem is if I can ask you to do something and you do it when there’s something in it for you without any “help” to get there (like a lure)… you’ve just let out your secret—I now know you know what I’m asking for! Oops.

When we use food as a way of teaching instead of motivating we end up getting a very different end result from the dog. So what is the motivation you ask? YOU ARE. Showing your dog that you’ll make it worth it as much as you can but there’s still a consequence for him making the conscious choice to blow you off creates understanding and respect—two aspects of obedience that are integral for reliability in the world!

I should mention here that in my experience when I have a dog who is willing to sit when there’s something in it for him, the “consequence” I’m mentioning could be as little as a firm “hey” as if I’m trying to get his attention in a noisy room. If the dog has had disobedience or stubbornness and resistance reinforced overtime, then I’ll likely go back to re-teaching the sit with soft leash pressure and patience until the dog has learned the “sit” will not be ignored just because there’s nothing in it for you this time.

It’s Black, It’s White!

The second and much more prominent way I use food in training is to create a contrast between what I like and what I don’t like. Let me explain that further. I trained a few dogs last summer who had predatory issues towards cars, bikes and roller-blades and the use of food as a contrast was certainly a help in creating new and lasting habits as well as balancing out the corrections the dogs received for engaging in these behaviours. What I might have done before I used food in training is simply had the dog tolerate the presence of the thing it was stressed by, where as now I’ll reward for every choice I see that isn’t engaging with the thing. The contrast I’ve found this creates for the dog makes learning fast and often times permanent.

Taking The Edge Off

This way is something that is new for me but I think this has made a big difference in some of the fear and anxiety cases that I work. I might not use a ton of food early in training with these types of dogs—sometimes because they’re to stressed to take food—but after a few exposures to the stressor, the dog starts to trust me a little more, loosen up and then I can almost use food as a way of taking the edge of and making their time investment a little more worth it. As my buddy Ted Efthymiadis says “using food in training can be the difference between just surviving and thriving”. For some nervous or fearful dogs, putting something in it for them gives them a reason to buy in which at the beginning is not the worst thing in the world for dogs who think the world is all out to get them.

What’s the Bottom Line?

I was wrong. Food is valuable and for someone who, to the vast majority of the world, is considered a “balanced trainer” it’s about time I balanced the equation. Food, just like any other tool, has a time, place and circumstance in the dog training world and if you wish to close a blind eye to it you’ll likely do just fine but you’re missing out on one of the most powerful tools available to someone working with a predator who’s habits have got him into trouble.

There’s NOTHING wrong with using food so long as your dog’s behaviour isn’t reliant on the presence of food. There’s NOTHING wrong with using corrections or punishment so long as your dog’s behaviour isn’t driven by the fear of consequence. There’s NOTHING wrong with using a tool so long as you can accomplish the same result with a few different tools (time lines might change, but accomplish the result).

Bottom line? I still hate clickers, but food is good stuff!

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