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Food in Training: Addressing Concerns and Understanding it’s Importance in Modifying Fear and/or Reactivity

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There are many concerns about the use of food in training. First off, will it make our dogs fat? Secondly, will our dog only work for us if we have food? There are also many misconceptions about using food in training as well. First off, a dog owner may assume their dog is not food motivated. Or, they may feel like they are rewarding the dog for their reactive behaviour. We can understand all of these concerns and the below addresses each and why using food is so important.

Causing weight gain

Of course if we feed our dogs too much they will gain weight! However, this does not mean we cannot prevent this when using food in training. The most important step is to use a high quality treat as these will not have fillers and will minimize weight gain. Benny Bully’s Liver Chops are our favourite as dogs love them and because they are freeze dried, there are no unnecessary ingredients added.

Ensure you also keep your treats broken up into small pieces. Dogs will work for cheap and they don’t need large treats to keep them motivated! You want them to swallow the food quickly and avoid filling them up. Working through fears and reactivity is stressful as well, so keeping them small minimizes upsetting their tummies. And by keeping them small, you allow for many, many more positive responses! I may have the opportunity in class to give my dog a reward 100 times but it amounts to only 5 full treats as I have kept them small. If you are still concerned that the extra food may cause weight gain, just decrease the amount of their daily food ration to compensate for the additional treats they are receiving in training.

Will only work for food

A common concern is that your dog will begin to only work for food. We hear this one a lot and everyone seems to know someone who says their dog will only respond to them if they have food. Do you want to know our response to that? Well, we think that dog is a brilliant human trainer and bravo to them for teaching their owner that they only work if they know they have food. We will work closely with you in the class to ensure this does not happen. Best way to avoid it? Follow through the steps of the program to ensure your dog understands what is expected of them vs just responding to the food in your hand.

Will not work for food

This is an extremely common thing to hear when working with reactive and/or fearful dogs. However, all dogs are food motivated. Food is needed to survive. For every non-food dog motivated dog we meet, we meet a dog that will do anything for certain treats when at home with nothing going on. This is because the dog is not feeling stressed, so they are motivated by the food.

Often, when a dog is not taking food, it is an indication that they are too stressed. Stress is not always bad stress, as we may see a dog that gets too excited by everything outside, so chooses not to eat. First, we may try a variety of foods, but if that still does not work, we need to address the stress. We start the dog at home, then just in the backyard, then front yard, then slowly move away from the house and continue to take them to new environments. As the dog’s confidence and focus builds, they will begin to take food in a variety of new environments and situations.

How a dog takes food is a good assessment for a trainer. For example, if a dog comes into the classroom and takes food from their owner and fellow students, then they are not too stressed. Now let’s say the next dog comes in and will take from their owner, but not from the fellow students. This would indicate that they are stressed with the people, so we would need to first work and making them more comfortable. And finally, let’s say another dog comes in and will not take food from their owner or any fellow students. This would indicate that the dog is too stressed with the new environment, so we would first work at them taking food from their owner, then the fellow students.

Don’t disregard food if your dog doesn’t appear motivated by it in certain situations. Instead, you should listen to and determine better ways to set up the situation, build your dog’s confidence and focus and address their underlying stress concerns.

Rewarding bad behaviour?

Students often raise this concern when we use food to interrupt a behaviour. For example, let’s say in class the dog reacts to noise outside and it causes the other dog to react. We cannot increase the distance and blocking their view doesn’t help. We also do not want to remove the dogs so they don’t learn reacting works, but we need to stop the reactions as they just continue to worsen.

For this situation, we use the food to interrupt the dog. We may be able to redirect them back to us by putting the food in front of their nose and luring them away. Or we may need to drop the food on the ground so that dog’s focus goes to it instead of reacting at the other dog. At this time, we are using the food to interrupt, not reward the behaviour. We progress through steps: interrupt and when dog’s focus is off the other dog and they are not reacting, begin to work on offered attention and then the auto watch. That way the food is an interrupter, and then used to reward the correct behaviour.

Or, perhaps you think the auto watch is rewarding poor behaviour because your dog let out a couple of barks before they turned back to you? This is also a valid concern, but we need to understand how the dog is learning to realize what we are actually rewarding. You reward a behaviour by delivering a positive the instant the behaviour is occurring. This means that your dog would bark and immediately receive a food reward. Instead, your dog may bark, but it stops barking, turns away from the dog and offers you attention, and then receives the food reward. This means the dog is being rewarded for looking at you, not for the barking.

Why food?

We can use anything our dog perceives as positive as a reward and it is important to know a variety of different motivators for your dog. However, when working on the foundations of a training program, food as a reward is our preferred option; not just praise, affection or a toy.

Let’s face it – if your dog is reacting, your praise or affection is just not rewarding enough. And if your dog is under a great deal of stress, as well as you, this may actually be demotivating to the dog. Perhaps you sound stressed and influence the dog negatively. Or, your stress causes you to handle the dog roughly or too fast. And even if you are not stressed, the reward is just not powerful enough to create reliable responses and move through the training program at a good speed.

Many dogs also love toys and they can be great motivators in a variety of training programs. However, using them with fear and/reactivity concerns causes too much excitement for the dog. While we work at settling the dog and gaining in their focus, a toy would do the opposite and get them far too excited. Further in the program, they can be a great tool, but while you are working on the foundations, stick with food so as not to excite your dog (or the others in class) too much!

Food creates a powerful emotional response and allows us to progress through training faster. It still takes work and can be a long process. However, food allows long lasting and reliable behaviour at a faster rate because it changes the dog’s emotional response. We do not want you to remove your dog from a stressful situation, but rather teach them it is safe and help them to face their fears head on! We believe in building confidence and working your dog through their concerns, and food is an important part of this.

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