If you feel that using food to train your dog is a hassle, trust me on this: the frustration you will feel as a result of inefficient (and at times, dangerous) training that eschews its use is far worse.
When I visit a client who is still new and learning, they are amazed when their naughty dog suddenly transforms into a little training robot. “Oh, of course she behaves for Torie!” they say, as if the dog is enchanted by my elusive dog-whispering essence. The truth is that there is nothing special about me. The only difference between me and my client is that I have a working knowledge of the most essential element for successful animal learning- and that is how to motivate a dog.
Food gives you the biggest bang for your buck in the motivation department. I cannot wrap my head around the pushback against using food to train. It is a core necessity in the everyday life of all living creatures. Food gets a bad rap, but without it we would all die. If we were able to train with water or oxygen, would there be such a resistance?
Perhaps we are projecting the human, first world luxury of excess food onto our dogs. To us, eating treats all day long is gluttony. To dogs it’s completely normal and hardwired into their DNA to spend the majority of their time and energy on food acquisition. They are hunter-scavengers. Imagine the skill and stamina it takes to spend all day long hunting and taking down a kill, or sniffing out every last crumb of food available to meet your daily caloric needs. Why not use their innate drive to your advantage?
Because here’s the thing: in order to change your dog’s behavior, you’ve got to have some leverage. If the dog is not interested in working for what you have to offer, training simply will not happen. Dogs have no moral compass. They will never do what we ask unless there is something in it that’s worthwhile to them, and there is no getting around that. Some dogs love toys, others could care less. Some love belly rubs, and some hate being touched. But food? Virtually every dog breathing on this earth is motivated by food, to varying degrees. If they were not they would be dead.
I can already hear a group of you insisting that your dog is not treat motivated. “Chloe loves my treats at home, but once we’re outside, she doesn’t listen to me and doesn’t care!” Uh, yeah, those organic, super-food sunflower pumpkin biscuits that cost $18 for a 2oz pouch? Not going to cut it (and neither will most commercial training treats), especially on a full stomach. You are throwing your dollars, and Chloe’s attention span, right down the drain.
You aren’t going to motivate your kids to finish their homework with the promise of a nutritious vegetable medley. The kid wants pizza and ice cream. Yes, they should finish their homework and every last bite of brussels sprouts simply because they’re altruistic little saints and they are grateful to you for giving them life itself. But they’re not, and you’re not going to kid yourself either.
You want the job done, and your dog wants chicken. They may eat your wholesome superfood nuggets when there’s nothing else to do. But if they’re outside and catch a whiff of a critter, now you’ve got stiff competition. And you need leverage.
Boiled, bland chicken breast is my personal weapon of choice, and should be the first ingredient in their food anyway. It is powerfully motivating and easy on the tummy. It will make most dogs’ eyes bug out of their head- with this much leverage, why wouldn’t you use chicken? The power is quite literally in your hands. Human grade meats and (small amounts) cheeses will accomplish more, faster. I also prefer freeze dried liver, chicken hearts, and other single ingredient meat treats.
If you have a notoriously difficult to motivate breed such as a husky or Great Pyrenees, try skipping breakfast and feed it to them as training treats during their morning walk and throughout the day. Every dog becomes hungry eventually.
Now, on the flip side: if you do not use something the dog likes as a motivator, the alternative is something the dog does not like. Pain, fear, and physical force are common tools among uneducated and outdated trainers who abhor the use of food. Not only are these tools inhumane and abusive, but we have a collective mountain of scientific evidence which unequivocally proves that the use of pain, fear & force creates or worsens fear and aggression, and rewards based training works better long term.
Food works better in the long run because, as a potent side-effect, the dog actually enjoys doing what is asked of them. They are more responsive to a person who is a source of things they like. A person who is a source of things that frighten them negates the entire purpose of acquiring a dog for a loving companion. What kind of relationship are you looking for? If you have an inferiority complex that necessitates exerting your dominance over a subordinate creature, you need to address these issues yourself. It’s not the dog’s problem.
Compare two dogs: one who sits because he is afraid of what you will do to him if he doesn’t, and one who sits because he actually likes sitting. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which dog is going to sit more often, and choose to do so, not just when asked.
And this, my friends, is why the dog is suddenly on their best behavior when I walk in the door. Not only am I a source of goodies (I may as well be a giant walking, talking chicken breast), but I am a reliable source of goodies. The dog gives me more behavior because it is never a waste of energy- I’m going to pay up, every single time.
It behooves you to give yourself some leverage and incorporate food into your daily training practice. The more you resist, the more naughty dog will persist. They will never be somehow morally superior and do what is asked for a pat on the head. The sooner you accept this, the sooner you can start to see some real change in their behavior, and breathe a sigh of relief.
Using food skillfully is another crucial element in successful training, to be discussed in a future post. To learn how to get started, book a consultation!