August 22, 2013
Food training is a hot topic among animal trainers, often causing fights between dog training factions, those who do not use food treats and those who do. This topic is not something I consider lightly even though I firmly believe that using a dog’s food and/or treats is the most effective and humane way to train them. However, I do acknowledge and recognize some of the notions pointed out in this commentary; “Subjective and Arbitrary Animal Rights” are commonly experienced and often problematic within dog training.
The topic here only includes “The first Freedom: Freedom from Hunger and Thirst” described as “providing ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor.”
“Most of us readily accept that freedom from thirst and hunger ranks as a basic companion animal right. Show us a picture of a starving dog, cat, horse, or pet bird and we immediately recognize that treating animals that depend on us that way is morally wrong. However, we need only recall the number of overweight and obese companion animals to realize that the right to food does not grant companion animals a right to a quality or amount of food that will ensure their optimum health. Given the choice between feeding our pets, something we believe communicates love and that which communicates quality nutrition, all those overweight and obese animals suggest that many of us will opt for the former. Meanwhile, ignoring the flip side of this right also has its proponents; recommendations to withhold food from animals to ensure a response to a food reward routinely crop up in the training literature.”
I’m going to comment on the first right based on the “Five Freedoms outlined in the commentary and this statement, “the number of overweight and obese companion animals to realize that the right to food does not grant companion animals a right to a quality or amount of food that will ensure their optimum health.” There is evidence that supports this assertion and in turn, some owners, actually many, often object to using food to train their dogs, most often citing this reason, obesity. However, it is possible that owners will use this as an excuse for the following reasons.
- Avoid learning how to use food effectively to train new and desirable behaviors as opposed to undesirable
- Carrying food around may not be convenient
- Maybe more time consuming to apply
- Avoid finding the cause for dogs “finicky” eating behavior
I am going to address the four possible reasons, fully expecting there are even more, including costs. I am not going to cover costs here because that topic would entail equal if not more time evaluating. In addition, similar to human food consumption and safety concerns, the same holds true for companion animals.
The first reason cited is an all too common problem associated with dog ownership, lack of emphasis on training and/or understanding dog behavior. It is all too common for dog owners to rely on anecdotal experience and knowledge concerning dogs and their normal behavior. Often dogs behavior is considered unacceptable, needing to be “fixed” with little to no consideration these behaviors are completely normal for this species. It will be necessary to understand not only what is being observed [undesirable behavior] and all attendant factors but also how one can effectively change the behavior without compromising the dog’s natural inclinations that satisfy both their mental and physical needs and overall welfare.
Training animals using food has a long history that has evolved over the years. The ups and downs related to food use in training will not be covered instead the focus will be why carrying food is not always as easy as dog trainers would like everyone to believe. For professional dog trainers having the right tools readily available is no different for them than the plumber showing up at your house with their arsenal of tools to fix your leaky faucet or the carpenter who carries their most widely used tools around their waists. For average dog owners, those who have dogs for companionship more than working dogs and/or competition dogs this is not going to be natural for them. They do not suit up like the plumber, carpenter, or dog trainer to carry out their jobs or daily activities. Our expectation that owners carry dog treats that could include their daily ration is not as easy as one might expect. This means owners must remember to grab treats, use an effective means of transport, understand the fine art of reinforcement, schedules, and have great timing. In addition, we expect owners to carry additional equipment like toys or other reinforcers, clickers and manage the dog on and off lead. Any and all of the barriers to effective use of food for training can be overcome, but not without the owners commitment to the training process and forming effective habits that facilitate that process.
Time and Energy #3
The third problem identified are difficulties associated with spending sufficient time training and reinforcing desirable behaviors, even if owners are taught using a life reward type schedule. It’s been suggested by professional animal trainers that reinforcement might require up to 1000 repetitions for reliable learning to take place. I easily googled this and found this link Madeline’s 1,000 Treat Challenge. Note this blog post appears to apply to dog trainers who are more likely to comply with this expectation; after all, it is their job to be effective if they want to work!
The problem is how to transfer effectively this kind of expectation to the public keeping in mind training their dog is not their everyday job even though it is widely known owners do not anticipate all the time and energy required to successfully raise and maintain dog’s mental and physical health. And don’t forget the costs! I will leave the costs up to you to determine, since we all have different priorities when it comes to needs and care.
Since I am a professional dog trainer [Association of Professional Dog Trainers], recognizing the difficulties faced with owner compliance is essential if one is going to teach owners how to be mini-me dog trainers. This means, it is necessary to establish individual dog owner goals and it is often necessary to teach owners many of the skills that it has taken us years to learn. Granted this requirement will differ according to owner’s expectations and individual dogs.
Implementing a life reward-training plan for companion dogs can be an easy endeavor, but it does require establishing new habits and we all know how hard this can be. Habit formation can be easy but can require weeks if not months to form. Success is entirely dependent on the individual/s. Imagine now multiple individuals caring for a single pet or multiple pets. Now you have to synchronize the training task so the dog/s receives clear and consistent rule and boundary training.
Cross this bridge and life gets easier, the dog has learned what’s expected of them and owner/s are satisfied with a well adjusted dog who understands exactly what is expected of them and learned how to get what they need in an effective, time efficient and low cost way. In turn, owners learn how to implement an effective, time efficient and low cost way to train their dogs!
I am going to suggest that denial in this discussion comes in many forms and not all those forms of excuse are covered here. However, denial is behavior that is common in dog training especially those who routinely help owners solve serious behavior problems with a direct effect on a dog’s physical and mental health and ultimate welfare.
I chose “finicky” eating behavior in reason number four because this is a commonly cited reason explaining why owners choose to feed their dogs in their chosen manner. However, this excuse is often used to avoid and/or explain why their dogs do not readily take treats, making the use of food training difficult if not impossible. The important point is owners will have differing excuses why they do not want to use food to train.
However, meeting dogs nutritional needs is not something one can ignore. Dogs, like other species require diets that meet their unique nutritional needs. If your dog is not eating and/or appears “finicky” do not assume this is simply a choice related to behavior, instead owners should seek advice from their veterinarian. There may be medical explanations that need to be ruled out first. If there are no medical explanations and your veterinarian feels it’s behavioral they can guide you on best practices for setting your dog up to learn good eating habits or refer to a reward based dog trainer who knows how to guide you. Establishing good and healthy eating habits is something your dog will have for life; it is worth taking the time to do this right before bad habits develop and you find yourself and pet on a dietary roller coaster that might seem to have no end!
Should dogs be denied food in the name of training?
It is true that dog trainers might suggest withholding food to help facilitate training effectiveness. However, this should not be done without consideration for the dog’s well-being.
“Well-being or welfare is a general term for the condition of an individual” and/or “the state of being happy, healthy, or prosperous” (Wikipedia and merriam-webster.com).
When I speak of an animal’s well-being it’s generally being applied to an individual dog, living under specific circumstances that include individual goals and can include behavior related problems that come in conflict with an owners expectations.
It’s my job to teach owners how to effectively deliver what their dog needs both physically and emotionally to ensure adaptive success. If there is a problem between an owner’s expectations and dogs behavior that goes unresolved this can lead to an unhealthy relationship. Therefore, part of resolving conflicts between owners and their pets requires teaching owners how to use dog’s basic needs to teach them the skills that enables them more freedom. This is not to deny food but rather to effectively use their food in such a way the dog learns what is expected of them.
The problems that often develop from any well intentioned plan often occurs in correct application that also requires full understanding what one sees in front of them. And you can’t possibly know what to expect If you can’t see it or know when it’s there. Much of dog training requires operating within fine lines!
Contrary to using food to train new behavior and turning this into life rewards is how I often observe dogs being trained and/or managed. A recent observation, while sitting at a light, serves as a constant reminder that dog owners do not view teaching dogs using the same methods as I or someone else might prefer. Instead of seeing a puppy being lured and rewarded for staying in heel or loose lead walking position what was observed was every instance the puppy strayed ahead the man yanked on the lead and collar pulling the young dog into place. Even if one chooses to not use treats to lure and reward for position, yanking and/or jerking a dog is not really training, it’s simply applying one’s will on another. The alternative is easy guidance and if necessary using equipment that helps you keep the dog in a desirable position without applying jerks, yanks and other punishment that can cause undue stress. And if you really want to be effective learn how to use your dogs food, why not teach them to learn to earn their keep too! Your dog isn’t going to think any less of you because you’ve chosen to teach them in this way, in fact, they will probably learn to respect you more!