Food Issues

Follow a positive trainer around for a few days and you will quickly come to realize that we humans have food issues.

Of course he is doing what you ask. You have food in your hand! (As in, I am paying you for this?)

Will work for food!

You’re sure giving a lot of treats. (Usually said in a worried and doubtful tone.)

I really want her to do it because I tell her to, not because I have a treat in my hand. (Good, so do we! We promise you will not have to carry a treat bag everywhere you go for all eternity)

Deep down inside, if you feel a little uncomfortable when you think of using food to train, have you ever considered why?

Maybe it is worrisome to you because it implies a lack of control. After all, if your dog complies with a “command” with no food in sight, he “gets that you mean business”. You are in control. (The truth? We are always up against the power of genetics and factors largely invisible to us when it comes to the thoughts and impulses of others, especially other species. The best we can do is hedge our bets by developing a strong history of reinforcing desired behavior.)

Maybe you think that dogs salivating and jumping for food are gluttonous and lack self-control. (Tip: They are and they do. Dogs are scavengers, after all.)

Maybe you worry that if you use food, you will create a food monster, a dog that begs for food at every turn. (You might, used incorrectly. As in giving dogs food for breathing when food is present, especially at the dinner table.)

Maybe you “have tried treats and my dog hates them, spits them right out.” (Stay tuned, we will talk about this one.)

Here’s what is true for humans:

We love food (most of us love it too much!)

We all work for food (we trade bits of colored paper, coin, and plastic rectangles for it every day)

We use food as a social lubricant, a reward, to self-soothe, and more (can you name a social event where food is not featured? Not many!)

But I prefer to use natural dog methods to train!

Good. So do we. Read on.

Nature gives preference to creatures that successfully find and consume food. When engaged in this kind of behavior, associated circuits light up in the brain. Affective Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp called this circuitry the SEEKING system (correctly written in all caps). *

SEEKING is the motivational push that gets us out of bed every day, happily anticipating what’s to come. Think of it as joyful anticipation of a place, event, or thing. Once arrived at or obtained, the circuit rests until the next time. Can you recall the satisfying suspense you get when opening a present? Then, once opened, that’s it. You may feel happy at your gift, but that sense of “Ooooo what will it be!” has been sated.  Likewise, dogs may enjoy a bit of food given to them but what really rocks them is the game itself, the ‘Huh? What made the food happen and how can I do it again?’. In other words, the search is the fun part. In fact, experiments have shown that animals in captivity would actually prefer to search for their food than to have it simply delivered to them.

Read that again. Animals in captivity would actually prefer to search for their food than to have it delivered to them. [1]

You see, the methods used by trainers that employ food do not simply hand the food over willy-nilly. The animal must figure out how to get the food. That is the game.

But don’t think that you can short circuit the, ahem, circuit. If a search for food is always fruitless, the animal (human or canine) will lose interest in the game. If you visited a casino and lost each time you played, you would walk away likely never to return. Casino managers know exactly how much to let gamblers win to keep them coming back for more.**

Let’s talk about the dogs that show little interest in food. These are the same dogs that we feed every day so we do know they eat. The problem may be:

Your treats are boring. Are you using hard, dry, tasteless treats shaped like bones in weird colors never found in nature? Will that light up your dog’s SEEKING circuit? Not likely. Would you be excited to explore the menu of a restaurant featuring nothing but unflavored rice cakes? If so, we need to talk about expanding your palate! 

Treats have become overshadowed by bad experiences. We often use treats to lure dogs into situations that lead to disappointment or even scary events. Dogs that feel this way often will look away from the food, raise a paw, squint their eyes, yawn, start smelling the ground or suddenly discover an itch for no discernible reason. You may have some work to do to repair this before using treats to train.

The environment is too distracting. Dogs can become nervous when there are other animals, children, or loud noises in the training area. Find a small quiet area to train in. Bathrooms are great for this (unless your dog only associates the bathroom with baths. Then you may have some repair work to do).

Your dog may be conflicted about offering behavior. Has your dog learned that the safest thing to do is to sit and do nothing? You may have some repair work to do. The game is, the learner offers a behavior and if it is on the right track to what we want, we deliver a morsel of food as payment. If the dog is not offering behavior, well, you can see the problem here. You may have some repair work to do.***

Now to the question everyone asks, "Will I have to carry treats everywhere I go forever and ever?"

No. Once the behavior is fluent (meaning, you have practiced in all sorts of different places and at different times) you can then gradually fade the treats away.



What’s the end goal here?

It makes little difference if a dog’s brain lights up when seeking food if all we are going to do is hand them a daily ration of food. The real beauty of using food in training is twofold (well, more like a hundredfold but this is a short article):

One, it works beautifully. We can teach things like having a gorilla willingly offer his arm for a blood draw; we can move crocodile monitor lizards from one area to another without touching them; we can even train lions to allow dental checks. (See video links at the end of this article)

Two, it makes training fun and dogs are all about fun. Isn’t that why we love them? That moment when a dog realizes, “Hey, wait a minute…I am making the food appear by doing x!” is beautiful to see. Dogs taught this way have a spring in their step. They joyfully comply with our crazy-seeming human requests. Our relationship is strengthened in the process. We intentionally bring dogs (an entirely different species!) into our homes and into our lives. Aren’t we then obligated to teach them in as kind and fair manner as possible? I think so. Now go out there and change the world.

I hope your SEEKING circuit just lit up at that possibility!


*I am a layperson and not a scientist so any errors or inconsistencies in describing the late Dr. Panksepp’s work are mine alone. More about Dr. Panksepp here: Do not miss the video he made of rats laughing:

**For those wondering about using variable schedules of reinforcement in a training session,there are many studies on the subject explained far better than I am capable of doing. Personally, I like to keep it simple. One click = one morsel.

***Need some repair work?

Gorilla voluntary blood draw:

Monitor Lizard target training:

Lion medical check:

[1] Animal Behaviour Volume 53, Issue 6, June 1997, Pages 1171-1191

Free food or earned food? A review and fuzzy model of contrafreeloading,  I.RINGLISaf1BJORNFORKMANbf2JOHNLAZARUScf3


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Positively Expert: Christina Waggoner

Graduate of the Karen Pryor Academy and a 500-hour certified yoga teacher. Christina has been quoted in Dog Fancy Magazine’s Popular Dog Series “Training Secrets For Siberian Huskies”, Orange Coast Magazine, Whole Dog Journal and the elephant journal. Christina has presented at Clicker Expo.


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