Are you using food to try and overcome the environment?

We love using food in training with dogs. Dogs need to eat and food can have such a big impact on a dog’s training.  We use food to help dogs and so as a dog needs less help the use of food naturally fades over time so we’re not using a lot or even any food forever in training.

But what is different about our training is that we rarely use treats when working with dogs.  We mostly just use food: kibble.  There are times when we might pull something higher valuable out to train with but it’s not common at all.

Here’s an observation that we hear about quite often.  Someone will have a question online about training their dog.  They’ll mention X problem and how their dog won’t take food, not even chicken breast or hotdogs.  They’re trying higher and higher value treats and new ones only work for a short period of time if they work at all.  There are mostly two main things that are going on here.  Let’s look at both and some example challenge behaviors.

Dog A: Xena

Xena is a 2 year old lab mix who is reactive to dogs on walks.  When Xena sees a dog on a walk, she starts pulling on the leash, whining and barking cause she wants to go and greet the dog. Her owner has tried numerous different treats including liver, chicken and hotdogs and she won’t take them when she sees a dog but will take and eat them when there is not a dog in sight.

Her owner is trying to outcompete the environment with the treats.  Xena wants to get to the other dog to say hi and her owner is in competition with this.  If has gotten to the point where no matter what food Xena’s owner has, it doesn’t work when other dogs are around.

This is a common issue we come across when owners come to us for help. There are a few different things going on here:

1) Xena is over her grade school level when she sees others dogs.  It’s also very likely that she’s at the top of her grade school level while on the walks as she’ll only take the high value treats and not kibble while on the walk.

2) Xena’s owner is in target lock in trying to fix Xena’s reactivity issues when they are happening.

3) It’s not known but common that Xena’s owner is not doing things outside of the reactive times to help Xena improve when things are harder.

What would we do to help?

In general, we’d get Xena and her owner started on using Xena’s food for training and do away with the high value treats.  We’d also start teaching them the TBTE Relaxation Triad Easter Eggs Hunts, Perception Modification and loose leash walking at home, in their backyard, in the driveway and eventually work up to going on walks using Xena’s food that she’s going to eat each day anyhow. We can put the food to use in helping Xena and her owner have a better life together as a whole not just on their walks.

Dog B: Sophie

Sophie is a 9 month old boxer mix whose owner has had her since she was 8 weeks old.  Sophie’s owner has been working on teaching Sophie obedience but it’s been challenging as Sophie doesn’t usually want to take food. She’ll look away at nothing in particular, be uninterested in the training or other fascinated with things in the environment.

Sophie’s owner has tried many high value treats such a chicken, hotdogs and liver and these will work sometimes for a few minutes or work on and off when Sophie feels like eating them but otherwise she just doesn’t seem interested in the food.

Sophie’s owner comes to us for training help.  We ask her how is Sophie fed at home?  Is her food left out all the time?  Is she fed just meals that are down for a limited amount of time? What food is she being fed?

Her owner tells us that she is a on a grocery store food brand (high in fillers, low on flavor)  and the food is left out all the time for Sophie to graze on and Sophie will eat a little bit here and a little bit there during the day while her owner is at work.  This is referred to as a dog being free fed.

We recommended to the owner some better food options to look into and see which ones might work better for Sophie.  We also talked about using food for training and/or only putting the bowl out for about 15-20 minutes in the morning while she is getting ready for work so that Sophie can eat the food and then the food goes up.  No food left out during the day.

When her owner comes home from work, using the food for training that would have either been from her breakfast and/or her dinner and only at the end of the day off a make up meal. A make up meal is the food that a dog needs from the day that is offered at the end of the day.  We don’t starve dogs day after day into working for food but rather set things up to help the dog be better each day while still giving them their daily caloric needs.

At Sophie’s next lesson a week later, her owner reports that Sophie is showing more interest in food during their training sessions at home.  She has stopped going to obedience class for now until Sophie is more consistent at home, in the backyard and driveway taking her won food.  By adjusting how Sophie was fed food (not denying her food entirely) her owner can more effective use the food to train her.

Wrap Up

Now some may argue that you don’t need food to train the dog and can get her obedience without,  Is this true?  Yes, there are methods that don’t use any food at all to reward the dog  and can teach a dog obedience.  Why do we choose to use food to train a dog. A dog has to eat everyday and so we’re using a resource that is already going to be given to the dog.  Also when a dog takes or doesn’t take food tells us clearly where a dog is in their grad school level in training and this helps us as owners and trains work to help our dogs successfully or adjust out training for the future to better help the dog.

These are two examples of where an owner was trying to over come the environment with food during training and were initially not succeeding. There is more going on than just the problem behavior that is occurring. It’s an overall training issue and how an owner is living with their dog that needs changing to help make living with a dog more enjoyable.

Remember, people don’t get a dog to live with them to be stressed and frustrated.  People get dogs to enjoy being with them, to enjoy doing activities with their dog and to have a better overall life together with their dog. We work to help owners achieve this goal and live the vest life with their dog that they can.

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