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Top 5 Reasons Why Using Food Can Be a Problem In Dog Training

food and dog training

by Jen Pearson, Head Trainer at Front Range K9

As a pet dog owner, the idea of reward-based training is likely very appealing to you – after all, you love your dog and want her to be happy! When we see a dog with laser focus and attentiveness to her handler, it looks awesome, right? She takes her treat eagerly and may even offer other behaviors in the hopes of keeping the game going. What could possibly be wrong with a training system that does that? 

If we, the motivational trainers, would be brutally honest with ourselves (and with you, our clients!), there are in fact several problems that have the potential to seriously impact the human-canine relationship when food is involved. Here are my top five concerns about utilizing food in training:

1. Food = Love
The first thing that comes to mind is how rewarding with food takes over a relationship – it’s not just during “training” time, but motivational trainers rely on having food stuffed in pockets, baggies or pouches every moment we’re with the dog. “Reward behaviors you want to see again” is a solid learning principle, but in reality we’re shoveling cookies at our dogs for the most basic of responses and feeling guilty if we have to just pat them when they sat next to us because we ran out of treats. Healthy relationships aren’t about tit-for-tat, transactions, or a “what’s in it for me” attitude.

2. Food can be addictive
There are serious mental health problems associated with addictions, as well as eating disorders. Have you ever suffered from an addiction, or known someone who has? It is a profoundly unhealthy state of being… for any species. And yet, motivational trainers are carefully and deliberately making dogs actually addicted to training. Just like with gaming patterns – whether online, lottery or in casinos – in the earliest stages and lowest levels, we reward every attempt. Then we start to reward only for really good attempts, until eventually it’s more random. Our dogs have become like the person at the slot machine, continuously pulling that lever thinking, “Next time! I’ll get my payoff next time!” Some dogs (and people!) can get addicted to food, and paired with a reward schedule designed to create addiction, and I have to wonder how ethical it is to try to turn my canine friend into an addict hoping for his next fix.

3. “Happy” vs functional
To most people, training-addicted dogs look “happy” to do their task – they’re very focused, intense, and bouncy. But are we mistaking desire, excitement and pleasure for happiness? Addiction creates desire for sure, and there is certainly excitement in anticipating the “fix.” There’s no that doubt addicts feel pleasure when they get their drug of choice. But are they fundamentally happy? Or are they living in a constant feedback loop of seeking and acquiring?

Both children and dogs of today seem to need instant gratification in order to feel “happy.” But good parenting doesn’t mean you try to make your kids (2- or 4-legged!) happy all the time! In fact, doing that would actually make you a pretty poor parent. In the end, the job of a parent – and a dog trainer – is to produce functional members of society. If we try to protect them from any stress, and never teach them how to handle situations where they don’t get what their way, we haven’t done our job.

4. That moment when…
Motivational training depends upon our dogs wanting what we offer them – there’s no way around that. If it’s food, our dog has to be hungry (or addicted). But even addicts get their fill, and there are moments when they may not want their drug. When those moments occur during an emergency, like a loose dog in traffic, we’re in trouble… and so are our dogs. Every rewards-based trainer, if they are honest, knows that sinking feeling in your gut when you watch a dog make the choice to refuse their reward – whether because they’re under too much stress, or because there’s something more interesting out in the world (squirrel!). And biology insists that such moments will occur – there are times when eating simply isn’t appealing, no matter how many repetitions you’ve done!

5. Time fixes everything
In short, it doesn’t. And when we allow ourselves to recognize that simple life truth, a major tenant of “positive only” training collapses. Our dogs aren’t robots, and trying to program them as such – the “you just need to practice more and they will do it out of habit” mentality – doesn’t respect the dog’s nature as a thinking, feeling being with the ability to make choices, both wise and poor ones!

You know what I’ve realized really does work? Showing the dog the whole picture: If you make Choice A, the consequence will be X. If you make Choice B, the consequence is Y. Sometimes consequences are pleasant, and Choice A is something I like… so X is something you like. But other times, the consequence (Y) is unpleasant because I need you not to make Choice B again.

It’s unreasonable and unfair to ask people to live with their dogs’ poor behavior choices for months or years, if there is a clearer, more efficient way to get the message across. It seems to me a much more well-rounded education for our dogs.


About the Author:

Jennifer PearsonJennifer Pearson, MSW, MSc, is an Applied Animal Behaviorist (Master of Science, University of Edinburgh’s College of  Medicine and Veterinary Medicine), an animal-assisted clinical social worker (Master of Social Work,  University of Denver), and teaches classes in the field of the human-animal bond (University of Denver). She has over twenty years’ experience working with dogs professionally as a trainer, behaviorist, handler,  and kennel associate. Jennifer has been an adjunct faculty member for the Institute of Human-Animal Connection, Graduate  School of Social Work, University of Denver since 2008 where she has taught nearly thirty courses to date in their Animal and Human Health professional development series, and on campus in the Animal- Assisted Social Work certificate program. She has also guest lectured for a number of universities, including the University of Edinburgh and West Chester University, and presented at national and international peer-reviewed professional conferences.She can be reached at www.k9counselor.com