The Problem with Food

You like me, you really really like me!

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.

But don’t just take my word for it; check out this video titled “Phasing Out Tools in Training” by Doctor Ian Dunbar over at Dog Star Daily.

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.



2 thoughts on “The Problem with Food

  1. Hi Kevin!

    While I agree that some people do use food as a way to emotionally connect (and think that is why we see so many obese dogs). In an increasingly sedentary society, I think people often feel guilty about their lack of quality time with the dog and use the food as an “I’m sorry”/bonding replacement.

    Not sure I agree with a total phase out of food in the training process. I never want to miss a chance to reward a good behavior, and want as much variety available to me as possible. Also, I’ve definitely been out with my dogs and been attacked by off-leash dogs before, and each time I have been VERY happy to have had treats with me, so I could retreat, get them eating as quickly as possible, and get them calmed back down. I like playing “It’s Yer Choice”/Doggy Zen type focus games while we wait at the vet’s office.

    Food is only one planet in an entire universe of reinforcement potentials. Rarely do people suggest you phase out praise, play, tug, or fetch – why the emotional reaction to using food? The great Bob Bailey says, “If you do not need a ratio, do not use a ratio.”

    I think behaviors can be maintained reliably on a continuous reinforcement schedule for all at-or-above criteria responses. Not that every response must be rewarded with food, but why not reward it with something and why should that thing NEVER be food?

    I do agree that you shouldn’t have to feed every “sit” you ask for, but more important than “cues,” to me at least, is creating a dog that is a good decision maker, and that’s why I pretty much always have treats, even if I don’t plan on asking my dogs for a single behavior. I reinforce my dogs for making good decisions constantly – decisions I like that they made without me asking or guiding them. Eye contact offered in the presence of something scary or highly distracting, turning away from an approaching dog and checking in instead of snarling and resource guarding, curiosity in the face of perceived danger, even standing and allowing a stranger to give a good scratch without jumping or shyness are all reinforceable behaviors.

    I want to have as many reinforcement opportunities as possible in a given environment – this may include squirrel chases, toys, sniffing gopher holes, squirrel chasing, “slappy pants,” running, taking a dog off leash, releasing the dog from the car, allowing a greeting opportunity, and yes, food.

    I think of food like I think of poop bags – it’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

    • Thanks for you comments Casey!

      I am not advocating the total phase out of food altogether here. Rather, I want people to think about why they are using food and what they are using it for. The reason I wrote this is that I often see training complicated because of food. As you say their are other universes of reinforcement out there.

      Too often I see people relying on food alone as their sole source of reinforcement and at the same time they provide “free lunches” way too often based on emotional reasons.

      Hopefully people will read this article and your comments and take a moment to evaluate how food is used in their training and their lives with their dogs.

      PS. If you would like to do a post here on the subject (or any other for that matter), you know you are always welcome.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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