What’s the Deal with Food in Dog Training?

If you trained a dog 15 years ago, like when I was starting out, you probably didn’t use much food in that process. Sure, dogs might get a milkbone before bed, but we weren’t dicing up cheese and hot dogs in our kitchens before class. To be fair, my first obedience class did allow us to bring food treats for the dogs, but treats were used sparingly, and it’s possible that the food only added to the confusion that the dogs were most likely experiencing in those classes. I still get hesitation or resistance from some clients when I bring up the topic of using food rewards in training, because horror of horrors, the dog may learn to only do the behavior when the treat is present.

As a culture, we have an expectation that our dogs should do what we ask of them, when we ask, without hesitation, and definitely without food involved. We’ve been taught that the key to happiness with our dogs is obedience, the dog will listen to what you say, no matter what. Is this a reasonable expectation of our dogs? If so, how do we achieve that high level of response to our cues?

I will not expect 100% reliability from my dog until I can produce 100% reliability in myself, which is to say – never. Dogs are individuals, each of whom react to motivating factors differently. I expect that there are going to be situations where my dog may not do what I ask of her, and for the most part I know what those situations are for each of my dogs. When we set reasonable expectations for our dogs in any given situation, we are more likely to manage them appropriately, and less likely to be frustrated by their behavior.

So, how do we get our dogs to do what we want them to do? Well, dogs (and all animals) learn things in two basic ways: 1) They work to earn something they want, OR 2) They work to avoid something they don’t want. Back when I started training dogs, dogs were taught to perform a behavior to avoid a correction. If the dog didn’t sit, they received a leash correction (a sharp jerk on the leash), often while wearing a training collar such as a choke chain or prong collar. One problem here is that we don’t always get to choose what our dog will do to avoid the unpleasant consequence, and many dogs will avoid the consequence by avoiding the work altogether. You can’t train your dog to do anything if he’s avoiding you. Other dogs will become desensitized to the unpleasant consequences, and will no longer work to avoid it, unless you increase the unpleasantness. After running into several of these issues with my own dogs, I decided to look for a different way.

A new generation of dogs benefits my decision to change how I was training. Tori, Fawkes, Pirate, Millie, and Mia have all learned that staying will result in things they want, like treats!

Here’s where the food comes in. To be clear, there are many things other than food that dogs enjoy working to earn, such as access to freedom, and the best trainers utilize these other options skillfully. I’m going to talk specifically about food, because that seems to be a sticking point with many dog owners embarking on training. Food is a currency that works for all dogs, because they have to eat to live, so most dogs will work to earn a bit of food. What is puzzling to me is that many people seem to feel that using the food in training cheapens the relationship they have with their dog. Do you eat dinner with your family? Have you ever invited a friend out for lunch? What about bringing brownies to the new neighbor? Food is a big part of our human relationships, and so it should be with dogs. Teaching your dog to work to earn food will create longer lasting, and more reliable behaviors in the long run, plus you will develop an amazing relationship with your dog. Food can also be used to create positive associations with anything that scares our dogs, helping their brains to switch from fear to acceptance, or even excitement.

How reliable can a dog become when trained with food? That may depend on a variety of factors including the dog’s personality, temperament, age, and physical status, as well as your commitment to training, opportunities for training, and training skills. In my experience, dogs who work to earn something, rather than working to avoid something, develop a higher level of reliability without relying on tools (such as a training collar) to maintain that reliability. As previously mentioned, food is just one of the many things dogs will work to earn, and including a variety of desirable consequences in your training will increase your dog’s reliability.

In conclusion, we should embrace the use of food in our training and maintaining our relationships with our dogs! Many of the skills we expect our dogs to know do not come naturally to them, and we need to pay them for their hard work in learning these skills. If food isn’t working for you in training your dog, you need to step back and look at the technique, rather than blaming the food. Training is a skill that must be learned, whether through books, seminars, YouTube videos, or lessons with a professional trainer. If you are struggling with your dog’s behavior, and you’ve resisted using food in the past, or have tried and not gotten the results you wanted, contact a professional trainer for help in adapting your technique to meet your goals!

How to Choose a Dog Trainer

In the world of search engines and social media advertising, it’s hard to know where to turn when you need help with your dog’s behavior. Do a search for “dog training [city, state]” and you will come up with all kinds of options. Who can help?

  1. Where to start? An internet search is a good start, just keep these things in mind:
    • It’s easy to sell a good story on a website, which gives no actual evidence that the person has the experience or knowledge to help you.
    • Some of the best trainers aren’t the best at marketing. Coming up high on Google searches actually takes a pretty specific skill set, and spending money in just the right places. I would say most of my colleagues are in the learning phase of marketing their business correctly, because they’ve spent their time mastering their training skill!
    • I recommend looking on the CCPDT (that’s the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers) trainer search: http://www.ccpdt.org/dog-owners/certified-dog-trainer-directory/.
    • Even if you find a trainer whose website looks great, you owe it to your dog to ask them a few questions (see below) before hiring them.
  2. Ask for recommendations. Your veterinarian is a good place to start, but they may or may not know trainers personally or have experience with them. Ask friends or local groups on social media if they have ever hired a dog trainer they would recommend. Your friends and community members are the most likely to be honest about their experience. You may just find the local gem that hasn’t quite mastered search engine optimization. pirate-and-megan-heeling
  3. Once you get a few names, or even one good lead, call or email to ask them a few questions:
    • Briefly describe your problem, and ask if they have experience with that issue. A trainer may not be comfortable with aggression cases, or have much experience with severe separation anxiety, and that’s okay. A good trainer will be honest about their experience level, and refer you to a more experienced colleague if needed.
    • Jean Donaldson sums it up perfectly with her 3 questions for dog trainers, and you will want to find someone whose answers you are comfortable with –
      • What will happen to my dog if he gets it right?
      • What will happen to my dog if he gets it wrong?
      • Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose?
    • If they offer inexpensive or free consults, they may encourage you to make an appointment, which is fine, but be sure to ask those questions during your consult!
  4. Be your dog’s advocate! At any point in any training program, if you do not feel comfortable with what is happening to your dog, speak up. You owe it to your dog to do what you feel is best, even if a professional is telling you otherwise. Dog training is an unregulated field, and there are many unqualified individuals working in the industry. This is why it is important to ask questions first, but unfortunately some people are deceptive. If it doesn’t feel right for you and your dog, don’t continue.

When to Hire a Professional Dog Trainer

How do you know if you should hire a professional dog trainer?

  1. When you are a first time dog owner – There is a lot of information out there on how to raise a dog, and if you are a first time dog owner it is difficult to know what will actually help. A professional dog trainer can help you navigate this information, and get you and your dog on the right track.
  2. When you are in over your head – Even an experienced dog owner may come across a problem they do not have experience with. If the problem behavior hasn’t been solved by what you currently know, a professional dog trainer can help teach you the skills you need to get a handle on the behavior.Fawkes
  3. When quality of life is suffering – If you or your dog is experience a reduction in your quality of life, you should seek professional help. This can be anything from extreme fears/phobias that reduce your dog’s quality of life, to a dog that tries to escape the front door at every opportunity which reduces your quality of life. You and your dog deserve to be happy, and a professional dog trainer can help you reach that goal.
  4. When you want to take your training to the next level – Maybe you already have a very well trained dog, but you know they are capable of more. A professional dog trainer can help you realize your dog’s potential, and find activities that your dog excels at.
  5. When your dog has threatened or done harm to a human – We don’t like to talk about dogs that threaten people, but these dogs definitely need professional help to keep them from being a risk to anyone. If you have a dog that has acted aggressively toward a person, a professional dog trainer is your first point of contact. Be aware that a trainer may refer you on to a more experienced colleague if they do not feel comfortable working with an aggression case.
  6. When you want to be competitive – If you want to compete in dog sports, hiring a professional trainer with experience in competitive dog sports can be very helpful in fine tuning your performance.

If you are looking for a professional dog trainer in your area, check out the Certified Dog Trainer Directory. In my next post I will talk about finding the right trainer for you and your dog.