I know that 90% of you take food training for granted.  Food shows up and your dog gets happy.  For most people that is a good thing, since food is the easiest way to rapidly acquire a range of behaviors needed for a performance dog.

I have one of the 10% that doesn't care all that much about food.  She eats to live rather than living to eat.  It is possible to acquire behaviors without pronounced food interest, but it brings challenges.  The environment needs to be tightly controlled, sessions need to be very short, and patience must be in abundance.

On the plus side, lack of food interest pretty much forces a person to develop the dog's alternative interests and to learn the absolute best ways to manage the dog's behavior.  Lots of trial and error is required here since each dog is an individual.  Indeed, even with the same dog, strategies should change frequently, depending on the dog's skill level, maturity and focus at any given time.

I'd pretty much given up on training Lyra with food.  I had found ways to work around it and she had a high percentage of the skills that I normally use food to acquire.

And then I found myself teaching an on-line class, where I made statements like: "the more motivators you have, the more options you have" and " a dog with balanced drives in all areas gives the most flexibility in training" and "building up all of a dog's drives to their maximum levels allows the most flexibility in training" and "the drives you use are the ones you build."

The first homework assignment included a few questions such as:

"What are the motivators you use the most?" and "which of your dog's motivators are strongest?"

Not surprisingly, there was a very strong correlation between a dog's strongest interests and the motivators the trainers chose most frequently.

Since I'm using Lyra as my demo dog for class, I did the homework assignments as well.

So here's what this esteemed professional trainer discovered - the one who assigned the homework:

I'm guilty of exactly what I tell people to avoid - I abandoned training and playing with food altogether.  I spent so much energy on toys and personal play that I built them up very nicely, and I probably hadn't used a cookie in a month.

Wake up call.

After completing the homework assignment a few weeks ago, ,I got the food back out.  I worked on her play skills in a dull environment with nothing else to do.  I used the food as  a toy - I used it to reward simple behaviors in the house where we rarely work.  I reinstated some clicker training work - high reinforcement schedule and a couple of new behaviors, shaped entirely with food.

And guess what?  When I said "cookie" the other day, she snapped around and looked at me with her ears up.  She CARED.  When I locked her out of my bedroom to train another dog with food, she sat by the door and complained -she wanted her turn.

And for those of you who love to train with food - I sure see why.  It's easy.  Effective.  Takes no time and space.  Hell, I didn't  even stand up.  And my dog has much better shaping skills than I realized - watching her tail gently wave as she tries to understand what I want - very nice.

Pretty sad when you have to teach a class to take your own advice: Aim for balance.   Better late than never.


Mona l. Gitter

I am an observer too and filled out the homework assignment. Turned out I lied. I thought I used toy play a lot, food play some and little personal play. So I filled out what I felt was right and then all week found out I do personal play a ton. When I mentioned this to one of my students taking the course too, she told me she knew I was a personal play person , so how come I didn’t know that ?-:) Video never lies !

Mona with cubby the oxen of a Pom

S. Weaver

I’m an observer in the course, too. Learning loads and enjoying it greatly!!

pauline hosenfeld

great post and great discussion. I have a pup who cares more deeply about his toys than the food he needs to grow and thrive. I do use food in our training – what I remember most from earlier seminars with Denise is the advice not to over-use food – unit of effort = unit of reward, and if you use food, to use it in an exciting and motivating manner. No just handing off food to baby Chase! and he loves the more exciting way we use it in our training games. thanks, Denise!

Ann Dahlin

All dogs care about food. I’ve seen a few people use food in a very effective way for competitive dog sports. It’s amazing what they’ve been able to do with treats as rewards. Of course, they are very good at what they are doing. From what I’ve observed, they know how and when to increase the requirements for the dog. I think that’s the key to using food as a motivator and as a reward – knowing how and when to increase requirements.

I see many people going back to easier steps in training with their dogs much, much, too quickly. So the dogs get lots of treats while their behavior is diminishing or staying the same and not getting more precise for the competition ring. I can see this in others, because I used to do it all the time myself…until it was pointed out to me. Using food takes skill to be effective for competition purposes. I think food gets a bad rap, because so many people aren’t able to use it effectively to increase precision and endurance for the ring.

Melinda Wichmann

Thanks for this post! I had grown very wary of food, having used it badly and with poor results, even though my boy has lovely food drive. I was the problem, not him. I’m an observer in the class you mentioned and am looking forward to learning more about creating “food play,” not simply dropping it in the dog’s mouth.

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