By Valerie Barry,
In Partnership With Dogs
I use food treats when I train my dogs – a lot of food treats.
Believe it or not, that statement is one that irritates a lot of people. I try very hard not to say it like a confession or like the beginning of a 12-step program meeting! I’m proud to say that I use food treats when I train my dogs and I strongly suggest and encourage my students to do the same. When I hear that a trainer uses and recommends food in training, that’s a strong indication to me that they are quite possibly a positive reinforcement trainer – big plus! Other things will be the clincher, but that’s a good start.
Why does that statement make people angry? Well, I imagine there are many reasons but I think that primarily some of the dog owning public have been mis-lead into believing 2 things: (1) if you train with food, you’ll need to carry food for the rest of your dog’s life; and (2) training with food means your dog only does something because you have food not because you asked. I can understand why you might be led to believe this because they can be true statements if you do your training with someone who isn’t a skilled and knowledgeable trainer.
One of the reasons food gets a bad reputation in training is because trainers aren’t always successful in teaching their students how to stop using food or how to use food properly.
Using food properly involves:
- How to get to the point where food isn’t necessary.
- How to use food as a reinforcer instead of a bribe.
- How to recognize when behavior is learned and successfully on cue and then how to move on to alternate methods of reinforcement.
- How to train without food when food isn’t working or food isn’t available.
The unsuccessful student comes to believe that unless they have food, their dog will not do what they ask – and certainly that can be what it looks like when you watch some people with their dogs.
Another reason the use of food in training gets a bad rap is when trainers aren’t skilled enough to know what to do when a dog isn’t interested in food. I use food for teaching tricks or obedience, for working with puppies, and I also use food for working with fearful or aggressive dogs. I use food for everything – except – if the dog would prefer something else. Therein lies the really important point about training and working with dogs. It’s not about using food or not using food, it’s about motivation.
Training animals (any animal, not just dogs) is an art. Positive reinforcement training, using modern, science-based methods in a humane and positive way, is definitely an art. Good training is truly remarkable to watch when it’s done with skill, experience and knowledge. The dog is clearly engaged, having fun and learning and the human is clearly engaged, having fun and learning – what a great partnership is being built and reinforced! In contrast, training done with punishment – coercion, pain, and intimidation – is nothing close to an art. Methods like this amount to little more than bullying – forcing a dog to do or stop doing something. It’s not fun to watch and it’s far from fun or entertaining for the animal or any informed, compassionate person to witness.
The art of teaching:
- provides a learning experience that promotes open participation without fear of making a wrong choice;
- is instructive with informative feedback that aids learning;
- makes things clear and simple; and
- encourages freedom of choice.
In order to accomplish this, the experience must be positively motivating.
Motivation is important but it can be a tricky thing. In order to teach anybody anything, there needs to be a positive reason to want to learn it in order for learning to be interesting, easy and retained by the learner. For dogs, food is often easy to use as reinforcement (and therefore a good motivator) because most dogs will willingly work for some kind of food treat. High or low value food options – every dog has his “price” to some degree. A hungry dog is very often willing to work for food. Food, therefore, is an easy and clear choice because it’s portable, easy to obtain and you can repeat exercises quickly, which makes training go much faster.
Food needs to be used properly, however, as reinforcement not a bribe, and there is an art to this too. But not all dogs will work for food or may work for food but not in all circumstances. When dogs are highly stressed, overly aroused or anxious, often they will not and cannot eat. The true art and skill of the trainer becomes apparent when they have the knowledge and experience to know how to motivate a dog with or without food.
When I’m working with my 3-year-old dog Quincy and we’re outside, food is of very little interest to her unless she’s 100 percent comfortable – which she often isn’t. She came from a difficult situation, received no (positive) socializing and she also appears to have very poor eyesight. Consequently, she is more concerned about figuring out where she is and who or what is coming and going than eating.
The biggest reinforcement for Quincy is letting her take the time she needs to check out her environment and giving her space from whatever concerns her. Sometimes the biggest reinforcement is listening when she tells me she has had enough and needs to go back to the car or even to go home. Listening to what your dog is telling you provides a lot of motivation for your dog and promotes a willingness to work with you. Wouldn’t you rather work with someone who listens and takes your concerns into account, who is supportive and helpful vs. someone who simply makes you do something whether you want to or not and whether it’s rewarding or not? I know I would.
Some trainers not only don’t use food in their training, they make a point of advertising the fact that they don’t use food in their training. Those kinds of assertions tell me that the art of training has completely eluded that particular trainer! They may or may not be using painful, inhumane methods but they’ve missed the point – missed the art of the training.
Something I find quite interesting is other dog owners’ response to me when I’m using food and working with my own dogs. I spend a fair bit of time with a trainer friend of mine who has a puppy a similar age to my own. The two boys have spent a lot of their puppyhood together and are great friends. We enjoy getting together for a dog walk or going out and finding socializing and training opportunities with the two of them.
One of the places we like to walk our dogs is a park out in Coquitlam that, sadly, has a large number of dogs wearing shock collars. I think that most of them hate the sight of us coming down the trail almost as much as we hate the sight of them clutching tightly to their shock collar remote as they walk along. Why? Because all their dogs cluster around us like we were the pied piper! We have food in our pockets, their dogs cannot leave us alone and this angers quite a few of the owners. We don’t feed their dogs or even interact with them very much – trying hard not to get them in trouble. If we say, “we have some good cookies in our pockets” by way of explanation, we often get the response, “Oh, you have food!” stated in disgust as they drag their dog away. We’ve had people comment, “Oh that’s why he comes back to you so quickly – you’ve got some good stuff in there!”
Interestingly, quite a number of people smile as they see our dogs bouncing towards them – and bounce they do – it’s quite amusing! We even get comments on how bouncy and happy the dogs are. However, no one seems to connect the training methods with the happy, bouncy demeanor. This same demeanor is not displayed by the dogs wearing the heavy equipment or accompanied by the food-angry owners. We make the connection and so do our dogs. Our dogs do come when they’re called and they don’t bug other people who may or may not carry food – that’s good training.
Please keep it positive – research your trainers thoroughly and make it a fun experience for your dog. Food is good!