All of the best dog trainers work without food. That’s what I had always been told. Dogs are naturally disposed to want to please us as their “masters,” or so goes the common lore in traditional dog training. But I’m a positive trainer, I use food all the time to train my dogs with excellent results. So what gives? Should I be using food or not when training my dog?
One website I visited characterizes the use of food in dog training as the “‘Biggest Scam’ in Dog Training Today.” The author, Kevin Salem, goes on to make additional claims, such as, “Relying heavily on treats to teach a dog isn’t healthy or natural” and “using food as a bribe rarely teaches your dog the respect factor. Sure, it builds trust, love and affection, but never respect!”
Kevin Salem is not alone. Hundreds of dog trainers still believe in concepts such as “pack hierarchies” and the idea that your dog must “respect” (read fear) his handler. Even currently in-vogue television dog trainer Cesar Millan preaches a version of this with his “calm, assertive” approach to “leadership” with dogs.
Our success with using food as part of a program of reinforcement and science-based training with our dogs stands in stark contrast to the claims of these “traditional” trainers. Their claims that using food is a “scam” or “cheating” when we train simply don’t hold up given our real experience with four of our own dogs.
A Question of Technique?
Traditional trainers who object to the use of food often cite the many problems that using food creates with a dog. Among the common arguments against using treats are:
- Your dog will only listen to you when you are actually holding a treat.
- You will spoil your dog. Spoiled dogs are prone to turn on dogs and people.
- You will have to have treats with you 24/7 to get your dog to do anything.
- You are unknowingly making your dog more dominant and aggressive.
- Your dog could get sick, fat or have diarrhea from so many treats.
- Dogs cannot be successfully trained for competition or durable behaviours using food.
- Your dog may not care for treats or become overly excited around food.
- Dogs trained using food are unreliable and don’t really learn to respond to the handler.
- Your dog will obey based on what type of treats you are offering.
- Your dog will learn to beg for food or get into a habit of counter surfing.
- You’ll make your dog demanding, and he will bark/jump/whine or poke at your hands for treats
Most, if not all, of these objections speak more to an incorrect use of food in a good training program rather than the food itself being a problem.
Using food in your training program is meant to be a motivator and not a distracting influence with your dog. Any number of books are available that describe methods to use food successfully to motivate dogs to learn and perform. Most of these methods include a reduction in the use of the food so that behaviour is reliable even without food rewards present.
Most remarkable to me are the claims that behaviours trained using food are not durable or cannot be attained to a high enough level to be competitive in dog sports. In fact, two of our last four dogs have reached the level of Canadian Agility Champion and my Tiramisu is currently working on her second championship title in dog agility.
There are now thousands of dogs worldwide that trained with food using positive methods, and these dogs who have earned the highest levels of excellence in dogs sports of all kinds, from agility to obedience, tracking to draft dog (pulling sleds and wagons), schutzhund, ring sport, and many others.
And it’s not just sports and recreation that these dogs excel in. Dogs have been successfully trained using food and positive reinforcement to be search and rescue dogs, drug and law enforcement dogs, service dogs for the blind and physically disabled, therapy dogs, and more. These are jobs on which lives may depend and they are entrusted to dogs trained using food and positive methods.
Perhaps it’s not the food at all but the manner in which it is being used by trainers in their training that can make it ineffective, even detrimental to the dog’s training and relationship with the handler.
Given that such positive and negative examples can be offered, clearly the food itself can’t be the problem.
A Question of Culture?
So what is the disconnect here? Why do so many dog trainers and dog fanciers so strongly resist the use of food in working with their dogs? Perhaps it’s a question of culture. I often hear the claim by traditional trainers that dogs should respond to your training because they love, respect, or want to please you as their handler. The assertion here seems to be that it is natural for dogs to want to perform for us just for the occasional pat on the head or some internal instinctive drive to please us. But is this true?
To date, science has uncovered nothing resembling an instinctive drive in dogs to please their master. What we do know is that dogs, as they have evolved and have been selectively bred by humans, are more like puppies than their ancestor the wolf. Raymond Coppinger, in his book Dogs, refers to this as Neoteny, a retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood. So when they become adults, our dogs seem to retain a need for a family setting and attention from some guiding person or dog. But this is not a “desire to please” nor is it simple genetics.
Consider something for a moment: From the first minute they arrive in our homes, our dogs learn that everything they need to stay alive comes from us. Food, water, exercise, companionship, security, these are all under our control as their trainers and handlers. The one thing not available to our dogs is the freedom to leave. They don’t have that choice. Is it any wonder that they will eventually comply with our wishes? I’m sure we all see the implications here and they need not be dark or menacing.
The simple fact is that we can get dogs to do almost anything without giving them treats because their next actual meal may depend on it. It may take a while, but if we’re clear about it, they will do it eventually. And so, without being able to have a conversation with them, how do we distinguish between them having a “desire to please us” and knowing clearly that non-compliance will bring unwanted and potentially severe consequences? The answer is, we can’t.
Bribery or Payment?
It seems entirely possible that our predisposition to denying our dogs food in return for their cooperation reflects our own human need to have our dog’s prove their “love” and “respect” for us. Our insistence that a well-trained dog is one that performs only for intangible rewards seems both unrealistic and idealistic considering how we ourselves place material value on our own efforts by asking for wages for our efforts.
Viewed another way, training a dog to work without food seems like we are withholding pay from them; like we are getting something for nothing. How clever of us! Aren’t we the gifted trainers. And we could probably feel good about that if we didn’t consider that something else seen in human relationships — exploitation.
Does one have to use food in training to be a good trainer? No. Does using food make one a bad trainer or a “cheater”? No. Food can be a tremendous motivator and create both strong performance and strong bonds between handler and dog. But it must be used properly to achieve these things as part of an overall training approach that focuses on reward for performance and not leading or bribery with the food.
There is a lot of great information on positive training and using food to reinforce your dog for desired behavior both at your local bookstore and on the Internet. The use of compulsive methods (denial of food, corrections, etc.) in training dogs has been shown to cause aggression problems in dogs, create relationships problems, and unmotivated dogs. The worst problem with proper food training is that your dog might gain weight. Well, just cut back on dinner then!
The rewards of a happy and motivated training partnership with your dog make learning more about this worth the effort. At least did for us.
“Polite Request” millicent_bystander 2008 @ Flickr.com
“Will Work for Food” US Air Force 2010
“In Our Care” turtlemom4bacon 2010 @ Flickr.com
“Happy Dog” quinn.anya 2009 @ Flickr.com