Food is something every dog has every day. Unless they are ill, there should be no reason for our dogs to turn down any snacks we offer them. But many dog owners claim their dogs won’t work for them for food treats as a reward. How can this be? Dogs are scavengers by nature. Could it be something we humans are doing that puts them off sometimes?
As a dog trainer, I’m always amazed when I hear dog owners tell me that their dog is not interested in food. I am a Mark and Reward trainer and that would take away one of the most obvious and easiest rewards I can use to help me teach my dog. But there seems to be a paradox here. If the dog is not interested in food, what happens at meal time? In fact, most of the dogs I’ve met whose the owners claim they won’t work for food rewards are not exactly malnourished. In fact, it’s often the opposite.
All dogs eat. So there can only be a few reasons that a dog won’t make some effort to get the food a trainer is offering. Either they are simply not hungry when the food offered (e.g., just after a meal) or they just don’t like what’s being offered. Assuming this is a normal dog who is hungry and that I have a yummy bit of food like cheese or roast beef, it shouldn’t be hard to get them to take a treat.
Could there be other reasons a dog might refuse food other than a distaste for what’s being offered or not being hungry? To answer that question, we need to look to the work of Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov’s work in the early 20th century laid the groundwork for what is now called Classical Conditioning in psychology. In short, Classical Conditioning deals with the association of previously unconnected objects and/or event in the mind of the subject.
The simplest and perhaps the most useful examples of Classical Conditioning is our dog’s name. Prior to living with us, my dog had no meaning for the word “Tira.” But we’ve said it thousands of times to her and we always interact with her in some way. Maybe it’s to let her out or to ask for a behaviour but there is a reason for her to give us her attention. So now when she hears “Tira” she will come to us or look in our direction. That’s intentional conditioning; I want that association to be there so I can use it in future.
But there is also unintentional conditioning that goes on. Our dogs are aware of their environment at all times and, just like other animals, are constantly working out what is going on in their world. The noise of the dog cookie jar brings our dogs running in our house. The jingle of a leash being taken out can signal a walk. Even putting on the right pair of shoes could signal to a dog that a car ride is coming.
This unintentional conditioning can have some unfortunate consequences if we don’t manage it well. If a dog is threatened or frightened, it may make an association with something in the environment they believe is related. If my dog sees a red towel and is startled by a loud noise at the same time, she could suddenly become wary of red towels. Some classical associations take longer to form but are no less powerful.
If a dog is scolded every time he enters a particular area or goes near a particular object, the dog may form a negative association with that place or object. In fact, many professional dog trainers are called in to work with dogs who have developed just such phobias. Fortunately there are many safe and humane techniques that can be used to successfully treat these problems. Desensitization tries to provide a positive experience with a feared place or object while gradually increasing it’s intensity. Counter Conditioning is a method that attempts to replace an unwanted response to an object or situation (e.g., barking, running away, cowering) with a more desirable behaviour by rewarding any occurrence of a new behaviour such as looking at the owner or sitting quietly.
Poisioning the Rewards
One of the most important topics being discussed in behavioural training for dogs has been “Poisoned Cues.” A Poisoned Cue is a command that has taken on both a positive and a negative meaning for the dog. For example, if I teach my dog to sit by rewarding them, this creates a positive association – everytime the dog hears “sit”, she knows there is an opportunity for a reward. If the trainer then begins to punish the dog for being bad by demanding “Sit!” and then scolding the dog, the cue “sit” now takes on a second, unpleasant meaning. The trainer could find that soon the dog is no longer responding to the “sit” cue or only doing so reluctantly. The cue has been “poisoned”, the dog can no longer be certain if they will be rewarded or scolded if they sit.
So what does all of this Classical Conditioning and Poisoned Cue business have to do with why dogs might not work for food? Well, the natural association dogs have with food is a positive one. It tastes good and sets off positive bio-chemical processes in their bodies. Many trainers also use food to teach behaviours by luring the dog to follow their hand which holds food. When the perform the desired behaviour, the trainer rewards the dog with the treat they were following. So an offered hand can be a cue to the dog that treats are available. We also use words like “cookies”, “treats”, “nummies”, etc. to let the dog know there are treats available to them to get their cooperation. Can we “poison” those cues for food? You bet!
I cannot tell you the number of times I have seen a desperate dog owner jam their hand in their empty pocket and yell “Cookies!” to get their dog to come to them at the park. When the dog comes running back, they are grabbed by the collar and clipped to the leash. Fooled ya! So instead of the promised cookie, play time is over and they have to leave the park. Is it any wonder I may see that same dog owner at the park in the future yelling “Cookies!” to a dog who is standing warily just out of reach trying to decide if there really is a cookie or not?
These kinds of fake-outs are useful in the moment but they could be doing long term damage to your communication with your dog. You may be unintentionally poisoning that “cookies” cue. And once you demonstrate that you can fake your dog out with one cue, why wouldn’t your dog start suspecting all of the other cues you have taught them? They might or they might not. That depends on how often you fake them out, I suppose.
Also consider that our dogs are aware of more than just the immediate moment. It is one thing to teach your dog to go into their crate and reward them. It is quite another to lure your dog to you and then grab them and put them in the crate and toss the treat in afterward. Those kinds of “payoffs” rarely erase the memory of the unpleasant event.
Most dogs don’t like being grabbed. So your dog may make an association between that offered treat and the unpleasant experience of being grabbed. The same can be said of being lured into the car for a trip to the vet where they may be afraid. In fact, luring a dog into any situation that they would prefer to avoid could lead to poisoning that food lure.
Will NOT Work For Food
Jean Donaldson, director of The SF/SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers and author of several books on dog training, commented here at a seminar in Victoria BC that, “If you can’t train a dog with food, you’re an incompetant trainer.” And I agree. Biology makes food a very powerful reward for teaching our dogs. All dogs eat and all dogs enjoy eating. But used improperly, you can see how food could turn into a warning signal for the dog. Not all food is good food, even if it tastes good. There may be a price to pay for that treat you are offering.
Often when I work with dog owners who say their dog won’t work for food, I am careful to watch for the dynamics in their relationship. Is the owner a dependable and clear communicator? Does the dog look like she trusts the owner? Do the dog and owner look comfortable together? While it may be that the dog is not hungry or food treat isn’t one that the dog particularly likes, often there is some other dynamic at play.
Fool your dog enough and they won’t trust you. Force your dog enough and they might not react so well to bribes of food. As animal trainer Bob Bailey says, “Pavlov is always on our shoulder.” Our dogs are always paying attention and making their decisions about our behaviour. Classical Conditioning is always acting on our dogs. We can use that to our benefit or ignore it at our peril. Once we create a negative association for our dogs with getting food treats, the road back can be a long one.
So maybe think twice the next time you consider luring your dog into something they don’t want to do. You may get what you want from them this time but what are the long term consequences of that approach? Are you turning that food lure into a warning signal for your dog? Or, more importantly, are you teaching your dog that you don’t always mean what you say. It’s something to think about.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs.
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