On the Use of Food

The Buddhanator

I'm still disappointed over missing the APDT conference. Last minute crises are what they are, but I am still disappointed. It would have been my first conference and it was also as close as the conference will ever get to me. <sarcasm>We have a very small number of trainers here in the NYC area and the northeastern United States, so there is no reason to hold a conference over here.</sarcasm> Ironically enough, it was even close enough for me to visit family…instead I spent the week over there, dealing with unhappy family things.

Some of this disappointment has been mitigated recently by the excellent recordings of the conference presentations offered here. I have been listening to them on and off for weeks, and had 12 hours of driving to do this weekend to and from a Nose Work Seminar in Maryland. (I had to go for a day, come home, and then go back. Long story.)

The combination of Nose Work and the excellent talks by John Rogerson and Ian Dunbar got me thinking about food in dog training. Mr. Rogerson (Who I really wanted to meet. He even comes from an engineering background like I do!) flat out says in his Dog Vinci Code talk that we use more food here in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world. Dr. Dunbar, as usual, stressed the importance of getting the food out of sight in the same session that you introduce a new behavior. His talk title evens ends with "without the Continued Use of Food."

In Nose Work, you use food (or not, with some dogs you can use a toy) to get the dog interested in boxes, then you move to other objects, and then you will likely move to "odor" and the food takes a backseat to the task at hand. And really, you're letting your dog know that it's OK to do something that she already really wants to do, just in a certain context. The last thing you need to do if you want her to leave your side and go sniff somewhere else is make her think you have food in your hand or pocket.

During the first night of my obedience classes I explain why we use food: it's the greatest common denominator of rewards for any random sampling of pet dogs. Sure, there are dogs that are more motivated by play, balls, or affection, but food will usually work unless something else like fear is taking over. Food is merely a tool. I explain that the food is for acquiring new behaviors only, and should only be visible at the very first stage,  for behaviors that require luring. I start talking about using play as a reward in that first session too. For the very next week, play is in use as a reward and people with food in their hands are coached otherwise.

These thoughts were swelling around in my head as I arrived home late from the Nose Work weekend in Maryland. I was sitting at the dining room table when my wife called Buddha for his eye medication. Somehow (I'm thinking during his "Kung Fu" matches with Caffeine) one of his eyes was scratched. (They use a lot of paws.)

When I had left Friday night she needed help giving him the drops and applying the cream to his eye. (Yeah, I know. Ew.) He is a very biddable and agreeable guy about stuff like this, but getting the cream onto the eye was difficult and much easier with two people to manage the eye and the cream.

"Don't you need help?" I asked as I looked up from my very late dinner.

"No, he's feeling a lot better now and just lets me do it."

A minute or so later I noticed she was still kneeling by him and scratching his ears. "Are you sure you don't need help?"

"We're done. He was a very good boy and this is his favorite reward."

Really, what more can I say?


What about dogs who aren't into toys and play, or even into petting? It took our severely neglected dog months and months to learn how to play and even now, if I try play as a reward, he either isn't interested (outside the home) or gets so distracted he can't 'think' (inside the home). It also took months before he really enjoyed being handled.

It's always up to the dog. In your case food probably is the best bet when dealing with distracting environments. In those environments you are still working on teaching the behavior. Sit-outside-with-scary-cars-going-by is not equal to sit-in-safe-and-secure-living-room. Yet.

So inside, where you get what the behavior you should be rewarding less (by raising your criteria) and at the same time moving away from food as a reward. What do you mean by so distracted he can't think? Does he play too intensely?

Eric Goebelbecker

Well, he still isn't confident playing tuggy except in very specific circumstances (one particular toy, me sitting down on one chair in one particular room), and he's not as interested in tuggy as he is in clickers. (He's not even as interested in walkies as he is in clickers). He is very prey oriented so has learned to chase a thrown toy or ball and after a lot of training has finally learned to bring it back - but only for a food treat, otherwise he'll run up and down killing it and trying to get me to play chase (unsuccessfully) for 5 minutes first. In the garden, even if offered a treat, he runs straight off with the toy and buries it! :)

I have used some functional rewards with him when out and about: 'go sniff' and 'this way' (BAT lite), and at agility I have used jumping as a reward for ignoring scary things.

Background: starving feral border colliexspaniel, we've had him nearly 2 years now. Still lots of behavioural issues - we suspect he had no socialisation to humans or dogs - but we manage his stress levels and he's a happy dog.

How about placing toy on a rope or string? I love using the lunge whip with a toy attached for prey oriented dogs. When dog tries to run off walk your hands down rope or whip, trade up for something else, then return exciting "live" toy.

There is a way he likes to play tug. If you want to expand on that, start varying one thing at a time. You stand up, or you sit in a different chair. Or even you move that chair.

He likes to play 1/2 of fetch. I'm not sure how to get him to finish the game though. Running off and burying the ball is a bit of a show stopper. Kinda funny though.

I like the way you are using functional rewards. Some people never get past trying to find better and better treats. I love using the jumps! It seems like you could premack agility stuff with him.

It sounds like he landed in the right home!

Eric Goebelbecker