Over the years (more than I care to realize), I have trained and helped to train many dogs. And the only time I can ever remember using food is once when I was in high school, and I trained the neighbor’s dog (that often visited on its own) to sit instead of push for attention. I don’t remember if it worked the next time, or how well it worked, other than by the time I was finished, he was sitting, and I thought to myself: Here is a dog ready and eager to be trained; he wants guidance, and someone needs to provide it.
Other than that one time, I have never used food for training, and do not suggest or promote it. Quite the opposite, I always recommend against it. I do fun food games, such as ‘Find it’ where I hide pieces of food for my dogs to find, or ‘catch it’ and see how well their eye-snout coordination is. I had one dog trained to do tricks for treats (not by me), and if he did not see the treat, no tricks. My dogs also know they need to sit and wait for their food until I say OK, as I do not tolerate pushing and jumping on me or bullying each other.
But as I continue to read, experience, and think about how best to work with our buddies, and how best to communicate with them, other thoughts are intruding. Dogs are descendants from wolves, and as such carry a lot of wolf behavior in them. They are sociable, need an established hierarchy and leader, and will work together with other pack members whether it be people, other dogs, or even the family cat. Wolves work together for many reasons, including protecting their territory from other wolves and competitors, taking care of the kids, protecting and helping each other, and of course hunting for food. As an example of their hierarchy, typically only the top male and female in a pack will have puppies, but all of the wolves will work together to feed and care for the little ones. The pack leaders also work towards maintaining pack peace, and will lead hunts.
Here is my son with a snack during a recent camping trip, and thankfully our dog Storm showed no interest in helping to eat it. She is really very good about it, while the other one needs some reminding sometimes.
So this means one of the benefits of working together as a pack, and obeying the pack leaders, is obtaining food; after all, they do need to eat, and they all get to share at the buffet. Does this mean using food as a training tool will help to communicate with your buddy, or distract them? I have seen some dogs that are so intent on obtaining that piece of FOOOOD!, I can’t imagine their mind is able to grasp anything besides the immediate desire for FOOOOD! and doing whatever it takes to get that piece of food. Rats, chickens, mice, and all manner of creatures can be ‘trained’ to perform a certain task to get a piece of food reward. Does this make them intelligent? Should an animal’s intelligence instead be measured by how well it can reason beyond the immediate necessities of life, its ability to perform a multitude of tasks, or its ingeniousness at being able to resolve these necessities?
Pavlov did some interesting experiments with dogs and food. He would show a dog a piece of food, and the dog would salivate in anticipation. If he showed the dog some food and rang a bell, the dog started to associate the bell sound with food. Then Pavlov would just ring the bell, and of course the dog drooled just as if there was food present. It is this sort of automated response that I want to avoid with training, as there seems to be little learning in it – I have no desire to have an automaton.
All dogs are different, and all will respond differently to different types of direction, so of course there is no definitive answer. My dogs know they need to respond to me without a food reward. If the need is immediate, they need to listen NOW! without waiting for me to show them a treat. However, I am curious as to other people’s experience. So, I am not giving a directive summation this time, but instead would like to hear your experiences, good and bad, positive and negative, as to how well you have done training your dogs with or without food, or even using other methods.
And remember our goal here is to provide insight and help each other be better stewards of our 4 legged friends, so please keep it friendly. Constructive criticism of methods or ideas is appreciated, as is praise for what has worked for you, but any negative personal directed comments will be removed. So let’s open that can of worms, and see how many get away.