Very often I hear that someone has been advised that “their dog likes food too much to use in training”. This comment usually comes from a traditional training mentality where using food “appears” to make the dog act wild and crazy for the food, therefore making it unwise to use food with training. If the goal is for the dog to be robotic and simply not move I can see where someone would see using food as an issue. However, it is important to keep in mind that when training an animal, ANY animal there MUST be motivation. You literally have two choices, motivate the dog to WANT something or motivate the dog to AVOID something. There are different ways to utilize this motivation, but in the end it comes up to those two things, wanting or avoiding. In positive reinforcement training we are generally looking to use what the dog wants to motivate the to learn. It is also important to keep in mind that when using the motivation to AVOID you are not teaching the dog to do something, only not do something. To explain further you need to look at the four quadrants of Operant Conditioning, the learning theory that defines the use of consequences in training. For a quick explanation, it looks like this:

Positive Reinforcement (+R) – ADDING something the dog wants to increase the behavior. Example: dog sits down and is given a treat. This quadrant does not involve adding an aversive to the dog.

Negative Punishment (-P) – REMOVING something the dog wants to decrease a behavior. Example: dog jumps on person and the person leaves. This quadrant does not involve adding an aversive to the dog.

Negative Reinforcement (-R) – REMOVING something the dog wants to avoid to increase a behavior. Example: leash is held tight to close choke collar, tightness is released when dog sits down. This quadrant does involve adding an aversive to the dog.

Positive Punishment (+P) – ADDING something the dog wants to avoid to decrease a behavior. Example: dog jumps and is kneed in the chest. This quadrant does involve adding an aversive to the dog.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Punishment, by definition decreases behavior. If applying punishment you should only need to do it once or twice otherwise it is NOT changing the outcome of the behavior. Therefore, it is not training the dog it is simply suppressing the behavior in that moment.
  • Using aversives will change the emotional state of the animal while learning and will remain associated with the behavior you train with aversives.
  • Using positive reinforcement can also change the emotional state of the animal, however it creates a happy or enthusiastic association with the behavior.
  • Whether or not you plan to use bait in the ring, does not mean you should not use food as a reinforcer when training.

Back to our original topic, using food with foody dogs. As a professional trainer and behavior consultant, I am thrilled when a dog has a strong interest in food because it means that I can use food to reinforce the dog quickly and efficiently when training. The last thing in the world it means is that food is not going to be used in training!!

In a traditional conformation training class, which may be taught by an extremely successful handler or breeder, you will hear people being told NOT to use food if the dog is very into food. This is because traditional training asks the dog to be able to perform full behaviors and even behavioral chains without breaking up each piece to ensure success. Examples of this are:

  • Asking dogs to be fully stacked with no reinforcement before the animal knows how to do this
  • Asking dogs to be examined without learning how to be stacked and how to hold the stack
  • Expecting dogs to be able to not lunge and dive for food without being taught to have self control
  • Expecting dogs to perform at a dog show without actually understanding and being reliable at the behaviors necessary to do so

When I am faced with a dog that is absolutely food crazy the first thing I need to teach the dog is how to be calm around food. I am going to TRAIN the dog to have enough self control to be able to wait while I hold food, break pieces of food, reach into pockets and offer food without jumping or lunging. This can usually be taught in ONE session and it isn’t difficult, so why in the world would I not make this small effort in order to utilize using food as a reinforcer in my training? The answer is, I wouldn’t. Before a dog can be expected to be polite around food, he must be taught this skill. Once you do this food in training and showing becomes your best friend!

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Vicki Ronchette is the founder of Show Dog Prep School and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer. Vicki has been working with dogs professionally for over 30 years as a professional dog trainer and behavior consultant, groomer and veterinary assistant. She is the author of Positive Training for Show Dogs, From Shy to Showy and Ready? Set. SHOW! Vicki presents workshops and seminars all over the country on how training show dogs.