Your Questions: Food and Loyalty?

Loyalty comes from understanding that you are only half of the partnership.

Hi Katarina,

We recently adopted a puppy from a shelter and are looking in to different training schools. While we like the sound of using food in training, we are concerned that our dog will not listen to us when we don’t have food with us. Also, we really don’t want to have to carry food every time we go out just to get our dog to do what we need him to do. When I think of a dog one of the first things that comes to mind is loyalty, so couldn’t we just use praise as a reward?

Kerrie and Mark

This is a great question as it really makes us examine ‘loyalty’ within the human-canine relationship.  Some people resist using treats, or may only use them occasionally because they believe they are bribing their dog. These people often believe that their dog should do what they say simply out of a will to please. However, no Being on Earth, dogs included, ever gives without expecting something in return, weather it be to feel good, or for some other, more tangible, outcome.

If you want a well trained dog, you will need to give in order to receive. If you prepare yourself for this, then loyalty will follow. Your dog has a mind of their own and is always making decisions based on the environment and past experiences. When past experiences have been of benefit to your dog they will be much more likely to engage in the same behaviour again.

When you live with your dog, like it or not, you are only half of the team/partnership. Some work needs to go in to understanding what your dog wants, that is, something that they value, not what you value. This relationship, like all others, is not just about you.

The assumption that your dog will work for your out of a will to please is your assumption, it has nothing to do with your dog, and will most likely be at odds with what your dog values. Usually a dogs’ value item takes the form of food, and more specifically, fresh, raw meat. The will to please rates lower down the hierarchy.

No, you will not have to carry food with you all the time, or forever. However, I encourage all of my clients to take food out with them for at least the first year of having a dog. This is to reinforce behaviours that are wanted, so that over time your dog will perform because they have simply always done so. For example, if you reinforce your dog for coming to you when you call, and do this for a year, your dogs’ response to your call will be to come because it has always done so.

This leads me to bribes, or as trainers call them; lures. We use lures by holding the food in our hand to manoeuvre a dog in to a position we want them to take up, once that position has been achieved we give the food. Luring is the promise of a reward for a behaviour, and we usually need this in the early stages to maintain focus and drive in our dogs. However, luring should be stopped as quickly as possible. Once your dog is responding consistently to the movement of your hand with the food in it, you can remove the food, and give your signal with an empty hand. This ensures that your dog will listen to you even without the promise of food.

The other question surrounding food in training, is how often should I feed for a behaviour? The answer is, only every now and again, otherwise known as intermittent reinforcement . Once your dog has learned the particular skill (success of 85-90%) then you should only reinforce the better efforts. You will get what you reinforce, so if you only reinforce fast sits and fast recalls that’s what you will get.

Yes, carrying food around can be a pain, and we would all love for our dogs to work simply out of a will to please, but this idea that you can train a dog without giving is immature and unrealistic. The loyalty you expect, will grow on its own with time and an understanding that you must give too.


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