I use food a great deal in both training and behaviour consultations. Food, when used to reinforce behaviours, is a powerful tool, as it has the effect of calming and focusing a dog due to the physiological effects it has on the dog. Toys and play can have the resulting effect of exciting a dog, and when working with reactive dogs, this can be counter-productive.
Reinforcers only work as reinforcers if the dog is willing to work for what we are trying to use. The dogs decides what is a reinforcer, not us unfortunately. If a dog is not hungry, or is fed on a diet of tasty, human, cooked food, dried kibble usually doesn’t cut it for training.
I recently did a home consultation for a couple with a reactive Jack Russell Terrier. Now, a JRT has a stomach about the size of a crisp packet, if that (small bag of potato chips, for my international readers!). I tried to give the wee dog a couple of pieces of hotdog, usually a high value reward and was kind of surprised that he refused them. On enquiring about his diet, I was told by the woman who owned him that he regulary gets a fairly large bowl of pasta for his size, cooked chicken, tinned tuna and sardines, as well as left overs from the family dinner. He was a little rotund, but only a little as he had obviously been self regulating his food intake. The owner also stated, with a degree of surprise in her voice, that he would only “pick” at his dog food throughout the day. Not a huge surprise!
The first thing I advise for training a dog, who isn’t motivated by food, as in the case above, is to reduce his portion size for a few days. Dogs can easily go three days before starting to feel hungry and a well fed dog can go over five or six days before hunger will start to set in. When the dog starts to feel hungry, we can begin to use his hunger to get him to work for his food. In using normal, everyday kibble as his payment, we don’t need to rely on training treats, hot dogs, cheese, chicken or other high value rewards. This way, we can use a really high rate of reinforcement to get the dog addicted to those behaviours and gradually start to fade the food rewards out. This way, we can save the super high value rewards for truly excellent behaviours, really difficult stuff or for when the level of distraction of much higher than usual
Good behaviours get normal food, better behaviours or performances get more of the good stuff and the best or most difficult tasks get the best rewards.
Don’t give your dog the canine equivalent of £50 notes or $50 bills for free in the shape of cooked chicken or sausage and expect him to work for pennies (dry biscuits or kibble).
Our dog’s job is to be a good dog. Daily food is his payment. If you give an untrained dog food in a bowl you are essentially giving him payment for sitting with his feet up on the desk all day and then expecting him to do what you ask without help. He needs help to know what to do. Once he routinely does all the god things, he has earned his food all in the one go either once or twice a day in a bowl. Until then, space the kibble out throughout the day and he can earn it during times when you are teaching him what you want of him.