Do I REALLY have to use food to train my dog?
I am asked this question a lot. My answer is no. BUT..
I highly recommend that you do, especially during the learning or acquisition phase of training, when your pet is just figuring out what you want, food is a powerful tool.
Here is why..
When you are training your pet; what are you really trying to do? Change his behavior, right?
So, the next question is: why should your pet change his behavior?
And the answer is: because you are going to make it worth his while to change. Another word for that is Motivate.
Now, you can motivate your pet in two ways: The Carrot or the Stick. In the former, good things happen when he gets it right; in the latter bad things happen when he gets it wrong. For example, imagine a long narrow hallway with multiple doors, like you might see in a hotel. The task that I want to teach you is to enter the 9th door on the left.
In the carrot scenario, I would close all of the doors with the exception of the 9th door on the left. I send you down the hallway, and, when you do enter that room, I immediately follow, and hand you $100. Good things happen when you get it right. After repeating that several times, what room are you making a beeline for? I can then gradually open other doors, while continuing to pay you for the 9th door on the left. Nothing happens in other rooms. Very soon, I will have a habit, you automatically go there, and, you will love going into that room.
In the stick version, I will leave all of the doors open, and scream at you as you sample all of the rooms. There will be no screaming when you enter the 9th door on the left, there may even be a bit of praise. Bad things happen when you get it wrong; they stop happening when you get it right. You will eventually get it right, and only go to that room, not because you have a habit and love going into the room, you want to avoid getting screamed at in the other rooms. How does that feel?
Training is about motivation and developing a human/dog communication system so you can teach the dog what you want him to know and to teach him how to look to you for direction. I use a lot of food in the learning phase of teaching a behavior, however, it is not about tossing food around. It is about using that food in a specific, deliberate, and systematic manner to reinforce actions (behaviors) that you want to see more of. Science tells us that behaviors that are reinforced are more likely to be repeated. Food actually directly affects, and changes brain chemistry. It goes right to the pleasure center of the brain and stimulates the production of dopamine, the pleasure hormone. Used that way, food is a very powerful tool.
But that’s not all!
A Russian Scientist, Ivan Pavlov, was studying the relationship between saliva and digestion. He hypothesized that digestion began in the mouth. To prove this he placed tubes in the cheeks of dogs to monitor when they salivated. Initially all went well with his experiments, he placed the food in the dog’s mouth and salivation occurred. But then, something happened. As the food was being prepared, they began to salivate in anticipation of eating. Then as his assistants entered the room, to prepare the food, they salivated. The big event for the dogs was the food, but all of these events that occurred prior to eating, the ones that that predicted eating was coming, began to elicit the same physiological response, salivation, and emotional response, excitement, as actual eating! Pavlov won a Noble prize in 1904, for discovering Associative learning or Classical Conditioning.
Learning though association is a continuous process, it is always in play with every interaction. It is a very primitive form of learning and operates on a conscious or a subconscious level. It is involuntary, it is visceral, it is emotional. This is why you enjoy the 9th room on the left; because you have been conditioned to, because when you are in that room, you collect $100. You remember that on many levels.
So, with one strategically placed reinforcer, the $100, I have taught you to go to a particular room. As the action of going into that room resulted in a prize. With that same $100, I have also classically conditioned, created an involuntary emotional response, a positive emotional memory around that room. As a result the room itself invokes a feeling of pleasure. In the first case, you took action which resulted in good things. In the second, association with the room creates a happy response. The key take home concepts are in one, you take action, which results in good things. In the other, it is association with or the presence of “something” that results in good things.
The beauty is, that once conditioned aka trained, I do not have to pay you every time. I can pay occasionally, and then some time, and then rarely, the same way that we gradually fade away the food rewards with our pets.
When you use food for training, your pet will have a positive association with you, the trainer, and with the action of the behavior. He will enjoy doing it! For that reason the behavior remains very strong even after the food has been faded out.
And that is why you really have to use food for training! 🙂