The Culture of Food: it’s a Human Hangup

Treats, snacks, food or reward: which is it?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

We as a culture (or maybe as a species), have a strange hangup with food. Food fills us with emotions and assumptions and strange relationships (chocolate!). There are still a lot of people who have a hard time even considering using food for training, thinking it somehow will diminish the relationship of that perceived (ugh) alpha status we so strive to hold over our dogs. Food is quite simply a tool, just as fetch, attention, affection, praise and others are (or money, play, vacation, etc. are for humans). The difference is in how the dog values these things at any given moment. To us, some things that we think should be rewarding are not in the eyes of the dog (praise or a pat over the top of the head are good examples).

Another possible thorny part of this subject is the word itself: “treat.” “Treat” carries with it a more complex connotation, like “fancy” or “unnecessary.” The “treats” I generally use are actually nutritionally valuable and enhance a dog’s diet, like a snack of almonds and raisins might be for me. Is my snack a treat? Are we talking about “treats,” “snack” or “food?”

The word doesn’t matter. It’s all in the eyes of the beholder and the beholder is our dog.

Whatever you want to call it – “calorie training” done right, with good training skills, means good habits can be jump-started and treats and rewards reduced more quickly. Done wrong (as a bribe or, for the human example, giving a new employee 2 weeks’ vacation before any work is done) means the dog might not do anything until he sees the goods first (or the new employee might high-tail it after his free vacation!). “Conservation of Energy;” a trait we share with dogs, will ensure we will make as little effort as possible to attain the desired reward.

Astro dog finds the ball to be very rewarding (by the way, I trained this with food). He does a lot of things without rewards because, through reward training, the behaviors themselves have become rewarding and have in turn sprouted other behaviors. It's a continuum... just like us going to work, if we aren't paid from time to time for our efforts, we won't be interested in continuing to go to work no matter how much we love our boss. If our boss decides that she'll replace our salary with praise, I'm not sure about you, but I'd need to find another job. I would feel very much taken advantage of. After all, I need money to be able to buy food to sustain myself! There I go again… it’s back to food.

As much as we'd like to believe that our dogs should do anything to please us, just for us being humans and therefore Masters of the Universe, they have one thing in mind above all else: themselves. One of my favorite quotes is, "the idea that a dog has an innate desire to please humans is a direct result of our desire to be demigods." Or something like that. If dogs really had the desire to please or to do things "for" us for nothing (or for nothing but praise), dare I say that we'd not have any homeless dogs and no one would relinquish a dog for behavioral issues. And I wouldn't have the best job in the world!

The difference between people who use food for training their animals and people who resist it is that the latter group gives away all their dogs’ calories for free. Dogs need to eat, after all, so they are getting food at some point. I look at a bowl of kibble set before a dog to eat freely from and think, "wow, there are a hundred behaviors in there... so many lost training opportunities!" To make matters worse, most dogs are overweight, so they’re getting even more for nothing!

No species lives in a nothing-for-something world.

I used to have a disdain for using food in training. Then, after some frustration on both ends of the leash and poor results, I started educating myself and came to terms with the fact that it was my own personal hangup over the concept of using food that was preventing success. My desire to become an automatic demigod in the eyes of my dog Dory was driving me to poor training. It required some soul-searching and deflation of ego to accept this and move on. Move on I did and boy oh boy did my dog thank me for it! Instead of diminishing the relationship, she saw me in a whole new light, like that chef friend you have who from time to time invites you over to dinner to be the first victim in some glorious culinary experiment.  “Wow, can’t wait to eat at Jane’s house again! She’s awesome!”

Timing… beyond rewarding.

Besides rewards, I came to realize that dogs need clarity - they need to know WHY they are getting rewarded. If we are in control of a motivator, we have a training moment right in front of us. This is where the clicker comes in - it allows us to give the gift of clarity to our dogs. It's purely cause and effect; a fact that we all live with every day of our lives. The clicker means efficiency, predictability, understanding. Combine good observation and good timing with a clicker and a reward and wow!

Consequence drives behavior. Consequences must be meaningful. Whether we are human, dog, cat, zebra or goldfish, these statements hold true. It's how we all live and learn.

We have a huge influence on the type of relationship we share with our dogs. It’s a choice not to be made lightly.

Now, are you going to throw all those training opportunities into your dog’s bowl and waste them away or are you going to see if he might “work” for some? Even better, allow your dog to experience some canine culinary delights in the form of healthy and tasty snack foods he might not normally get. It’ll make him eager for more training!