Objections to Food?

By Lynn –

Another bullet in the Animal Behavior section of my $88 monster of a textbook admonishes us to “Avoid trainers who object to using food as a training reward. Food is an acceptable positive reinforcement training tool.”

AHA, yes indeed it is acceptable. This doesn’t mean it is required.

The use of food reinforcements in a training program is very much a gray area in dog training. Let’s examine some reasons why some trainers might or might not prefer to use it.

The biggest argument for using food treat is, undoubtedly, DRIVE. Indeed, it is the rare dog (or child?) that will turn down a tasty morsel, and trainers take advantage of this greed (for lack of a better word) in order to make a dog learn and/or execute a command. It’s amazing what even a tiny piece of stinky goodness can do to even the most lazy dog, and trainers want clients to see their dogs performing happily and with gusto. These results can be achieved easily be a dog who is motivated by the possibility that it will get to have a treat, especially if it can already see and/or smell it.

One rather large argument that contradicts this is the notion that a dog should work for the person, and this is undoubtedly what the bulleted phrase in my Monster is referring to. It is the idea that the person working the dog, whether that be the trainer, handler/owner, etc, must use enthusiasm and energy to motivate the dog to perform rather than the impersonal crunch of a treat. This completely eliminates the need to carry a treat bag as well as ‘phase out’ the use of treats so that one may not have to carry a treat bag around for life, because the dog receives the same reward with same value all the time, from when it first begins to learn a command to 3 years later when it still executes that command.

Does that mean that all trainers who choose to not use food treats are against the concept? Of course not! They just prefer to not bring out the hot dog chunks first thing outright, and that is what upsets people who believe that treats are a necessity in training. It is similar to what we hear regarding headcollars, especially as quoted in the previous blog and even in the literature sold with the product: people are led to believe that they NEED this in order to make their dog the best it can be…even if the dog is only 12 weeks old and just leaving the litter! Never mind starting with basics and foundation obedience to figure out the personality, drive and temperament of the individual dog; no, the puppy MUST leave that first vet’s appointment with a signed, dispense-as-written prescription for a headcollar and training that includes food treats! (For the record, I do think treats are just fine for puppy training. They should just be used in conjunction with praise and an interactive play/toy reward as well.)

Even if a trainer who is open to the idea of food encounters a dog that might benefit, the first course of action is to determine why and treat the problem from there. Perhaps the client has a dog who really doesn’t care if the trainer is dancing around using a high-pitched voice, but when something else, maybe a toy, is brought out, the dog perks up. Aha! So now the trainer is still applying himself to motivate the dog, but now has added another level of excitement without using food treats. The toy is one item that doens’t have to be bought over and over again (like commercially-made treats), and it has the benefit of making the dog interact with the trainer in playing with it rather than just having a goody popped in its mouth.

Where most people go wrong is that they either bring out the food immediately without even trying to use themselves or a toy to motivate the dog, or they just jump from using themselves straight to food.

Of course the dog’s going to sit at attention when the goodies come out! You think I’d slouch in class if my professor gave me potato chips?!

But there’s the rub: professors don’t use goodies all the time. Sure, the occasional candy day comes and goes once every couple of months, but otherwise professors need to use themselves and their subjects at hand in order to motivate the students. And of course, there will always be students who really don’t care and don’t put forth the effort to apply themselves (thankfully that’s rather few and far between in career programs!), and I’d say that’s their own darn fault. Learning the basic commands for dogs may not be all that fun, but there ARE ways to make it fun without using food.

And if a trainer decides that a little morsel might actually benefit the dog in moving it forward in training? GO FOR IT! If someone is doing desensitization exercises on their dog (such as what we are doing with the dremel), it’s FINE to bring out some treats!

We are too quick as a society to not start with the basics and try some logical things first before moving to the high-value items. We use this process in many facets of life: most guys I know don’t go on a first date with a diamond ring in their pocket. Most teenagers don’t start out behind the wheel of the fastest hot rod they (or their parents, more likely!) can get their hands on, or at least that’s not what’s recommended. NFL players weren’t tossed into full-tackle football when they were 4 years old.

So why do we jump immediately to the food treats when we find that nothing else grabs a dog’s attention?

Because using ourselves as a motivation in a basic, low-distraction environment (whoever has seen this in a traditional pure-positive group class?) and issuing appropriate corrections for inappropriate behavior (whoever has seen this in a traditional pure-positive training class?) is simply too logical, maybe even “old-school” style of thinking…and anything/everything “old-school” is automatically bad with dogs. Of course, they have the ‘Praise’ part down pat…combined with either a clicker or a food treat.

That is why it’s called Praise-Motivation-Correction. Praise the dog for doing the right thing. Motivate it to do the right thing using whatever is necessary, starting with the most basic application. Correct the dog for misbehaviors or not doing the right thing.

When I start out training a horse ground manners, I start with the most basic pressure to ask it to move in a certain direction. Namely, I start by using body language and my stick to ask the horse to, say, move it’s butt away from me. If that doesn’t make headway, then I will tell the horse what I want it to do by adding a little bit of physical pressure via taps on the hindquarters with the stick. If that doesn’t work, then I will raise the pressure and intensity of taps at increasing intervals until I get what I ask for…even if it’s just one step. And then I reward by removing all pressure.

If someone just went straight to that last step and went to whacking my horse just to make it yield its hindquarters, you bet I’d be hauling both myself and my horse out of there within a few minutes! But then why do we stick around with, and even encourage owners to use the services of, dog trainers who automatically jump to the most positively motivational tool they can use with many pet dogs?

No real balanced pet obedience trainer advertises with phrases like “Cutting-edge science,” “dog-friendly,” “violence-free,” or “No tools of this type used.” That’s because they don’t need to. Their results speak volumes for anyone observing their clients and personal dogs. Labels and pathos-laden catchphrases do not. They use training techniques that work and are willing to mold it to each individual dog’s personality, temperament and level of drive. They just don’t feel it necessary to give the Lamborghini keys out that first day, if at all if the dog doesn’t even need them.