Treats, eats, snacks, doggy dollars, whatever you want to call it, food is both one of our best friends and worst enemies when it comes to training our dogs. It serves as legal tender for all yeses and clicks both public and private and gives us the full faith and credit in our dog’s eyes that we make good on our debts.
Expressing our emotions through food is as much a part of being human as walking upright on two legs and talking; it is part of who we are. Love or hate, joy or sorrow, consciously or unconsciously, food becomes an expression of our internal state of being. And since many of us connect with our dogs on an emotional level as well, food can become an emotional currency between human and canine.
Because we converse by different means, saying “I love you” to our dogs isn’t quite as easy as a few words and a tender look. Foods common role in both our worlds gives us a way to express our feelings to them that resonates with us.
Unfortunately, the multifaceted role that food plays between us and our dogs can present us with problems. On one hand food is part and parcel of the bargain we give to our dogs for living with us. On another, it helps us to communicate ideas and behaviors we want to instill in our dogs. In yet another capacity, it serves as an emotional release for us in communicating our emotions both consciously and unconsciously; and there’s the rub.
Just like any commodity, food’s value is dependent on its abundance. If it’s easy to get and you find it everywhere you look, then it’s just not as valuable a commodity as one that’s scarce.
If I am given a pat on the back at work every time I do something as mundane as sharpening my pencil, that pat soon loses meaning for me. It may feel good to you as my supervisor to give me such encouragement, but to me it just becomes a perfunctory ritual that doesn’t really signify anything. If I happen to like pats on the back, I may sharpen my pencil 50 times a day. If I don’t like pats on the back I may switch to a pen.
Ideally, beyond its primary role in providing proper nutrition and sustenance, food should serve as a reward that enforces those new ideas and behaviors that we are just teaching our dogs. Once our dogs start grasping the cues and prompts food stands surety for, we need to start fading out the food and replace it with functional or life rewards. This accomplishes the goal we started with in the beginning of having a well-trained dog that responds to our verbal and visual cues without having pockets that reek of Ball Park Franks.
And please let us know what you think. What roles does food play in your house between you and your dog(s)? Do you think the food you give your dog is more emotional release for you, or a reward for your dog? Should the concentrated cuteness that presents itself to us every day always be rewarded with tangible goods?
We look forward to hearing from you.