Do I REALLY have to use food to train my dog?

Do I REALLY have to use food to train my dog?

Using food in dog training
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!  🙂

– Melinda

iCalmDog for an Anxious Poodle?

iCalmDog for an Anxious Poodle?

Sleep Sheep on the Go from Cloud BJust so you know Kids and dogs are two of my favorite subjects, both together and separately. I often get on my soapb


ox proclaiming the importance of being able to read canine body language not only for the dog’s comfort and trust, but also for human safety. Children are over represented in the national dog bite statistics. Primarily because they are #1 right at the dog’s eye level and #2 they don’t understand what the dog is saying.

Dogs are also, in a lot of cases, being asked to be child and friend substitutes. They are considered full family members. This is evident in the amount of money we spend annually on our pets.

Given that, my question to you all is: I purchased the absolutely adorable Cloud B Sleep Sheep on the Go for my soon- to- arrive first Grandchild. This soft cuddly sheep attaches to the crib and plays soothing nature sounds to help children sleep easier. Hey, I tried it, and, I want one for me! Now, please!

Therefore, In the interest of being fair to all, should I also purchase the iCalmDog for my anxious Poodle?

– Melinda


Sleep Sheep on the Go

Positive Training at Chicago Aquarium

Positive Training at Chicago Aquarium

Chicago is a great town for a lot of reasons… The Shedd’s Aquarium is one. Mainly due to Ken Ramirez the Training director!
I have taken classes with him and he really thinks outside the box! Enjoy the video…

– Melinda

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Victoria Stilwell to offer seminar in NJ

Victoria Stilwell to offer seminar in NJ

Victoria StilwellIT’S OFFICIAL!! Victoria Stilwell will be in NJ on Oct. 19-20 2013 to present a two day seminar on a variety of topics that will be educational to dog lovers, owners, shelter and rescue staff and volunteers and trainers. She’ll be appearing at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft N and ALL money raised by this event will be distributed to area animal rescue groups. Stay tuned for more information and where to register.


Bucks County dog trainer named to Animal Planet star’s network

Melinda Berger, Dream Dogs Family Dog Training, joins Victoria Stilwell Positively™ Dog Training

 NEWTOWN, Pa.—Oct. 9, 2012—World-renowned dog trainer and Animal Planet TV star Victoria Stilwell is pleased to announce that she has personally selected Melinda Berger of Dream Dogs Family Dog Training LLC, to represent her in the Bucks County area and has invited Berger to join Victoria Stilwell PositivelyTM Dog Training – the world’s premier network of professional positive reinforcement dog trainers.

Stilwell is one of the world’s best-known dog trainers due to her hit TV show It’s Me or the Dog, through which she shares her passion for educating the public about the power of reward-based positive reinforcement training methods and the dangers and ineffectiveness of traditional dominance-based philosophies. With the formation of Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Training (VSPDT), Victoria has assembled a global team of world-class positive reinforcement dog trainers dedicated to Stilwell’s humane, force-free dog training methods, which result in a truly balanced human/dog relationship based on mutual trust, respect and love.

After working with Stilwell and her team, Berger was recently extended and accepted an exclusive offer to join the VSPDT team. As an accomplished dog trainer dedicated to maintaining the highest level of professionalism and expertise while following the latest in the ever-evolving field of animal behavioral science, Berger offers the Bucks County area a dog training option they can rely upon to achieve positive results using the same science-based, humane methods Stilwell demonstrates onIt’s Me or the Dog.


About Victoria Stilwell

World-renowned dog trainer, best-selling author and TV personality Victoria Stilwell is best known for her role as the star of Animal Planet’s hit TV series It’s Me or the Dog.  Having filmed over 100 episodes, Stilwell reaches audiences in over 50 countries and has been recognized with numerous awards, including 2009 Dog Trainer of the Year and a People’s Choice Award nomination. In addition to her popular podcasts, live tour events, best-selling books, training videos, and public appearances, Stilwell has created the online home of positive reinforcement featuring the world’s leading veterinary behaviorists, dog trainers and behavioral scientists on her Positively Expert Blog. For more visit Victoria’s official site at

About Melinda Berger

Berger is a long-time practitioner of force-free positive reinforcement training with 20 years professional experience handling thousands of dogs. She is a graduate of the prestigious Peaceable Paws Academy (PMCT) and studied learning theory and cognition at Harvard University Extension School. She is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) and a Board Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC). Berger is a Professional Member of The Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and a Professional Member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She is also a Professional Member of the Pet Professional Guild, an organization dedicated to forwarding the message of science-based, humane training methods. She has the knowledge, experience and skills to help dog owners improve the lives and the behavior of the four-legged friends, Positively.

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Who is walking who?

Who is walking who?

By Kate Fratti
Bucks County Courier Times
Reprinted with Permission

There was a time when all this no-athlete had to be ashamed of was the inability to walk and chew gum at the same time. Now, I fret over my inability to walk, talk, click and toss doggie treats in just the right way.

I lack natural good form when it comes to dog walking, which is why I am taking lessons. Thank goodness the instructor eschews shame-based teaching methods. No pointing and snickering when I goof up-like the time I hit poor dog in the face with a cheddar cheese cube that was supposed to be a reward.

As I untangle myself from the leash after each try, “Positive Training” expert Melinda Berger points out my success, however small. The dog gets a cheese cube in the eye and I get a “good job!”

Make no mistake, Berger spends way more time with the creature holding the end of the leash than she does with the one wearing the collar and tags.

You see that lawn ornament in my front yard? That’s no ornament. That’s my dog, refusing to budge now that I’m putting myself in charge of our walks.

When I get exasperated, Berger assures me the dog isn’t being stubborn or spiteful or just plain rude. Instead, dog is a play-it-safe creature just trying to figure out the new rules. Be patient with her, she counsels. Whatever.

I honestly believe dog and I would have more success as physics lab partners than we do learning “loose leash walking” together. We’re having so much trouble because dog has been in charge of our walks since she was a tiny pup. It’s a lot easier to prevent bad behavior than correct it. But correct it we must, if dog and I are ever to walk in peace.

In the old days (last week) I’d clip on her leash and she would tear out the front door and up the drive, pulling me into a sprint behind her. I’m not the sprinting kind. It has grown so difficult for me to keep up with her that I’ve seriously considered buying an old boardwalk cruise to ride behind her.

Husband discouraged the idea right away, pointing out that I’m not so steady on a bicycle that doesn’t have a bounding pit bull doing the steering. He envisioned having to untangle me, the bike and the dog from trees and utility poles.

If you insist on letting her tow you on a bike, I’m going to insist you wear a football helmet and mouth guard.

That would have been undignified. So, I’m taking these walking lessons. Berger’s walk philosophy is simple but not easy.

“Make a pact with yourself that, from this day forward your dog will NEVER arrive at his destination by pulling. He will only arrive where he wants to go by walking on a loose leash. If your dog is pulling, stop your forward motion.”

Dog and I stand around a lot these days.

Berger is teaching me to use a clicker and treats to reward the occasions when pooch will walk with a little slack in the line. There’s a method to this. But I get so happy for a little forward movement I’m clicking and raining down treats willy-nilly. Dog looks confused and figures it’s better to sit still.

I made matters worse Monday, when I offered a not-so-interesting treat. Turns out dog refuses to do any heavy lifting for anyless than a Vienna sausage. She looked insulted when I clicked and tossed cheddar. Berger suggested I up the ante.

Which is all to say that it could be a long while before neighbors see dog and me on a elegant stroll. But, like Berger, I remain positive. It could happen. I just gotta believe.

Kate Fratti’s column appears on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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She teaches dog lovers new tricks

She teaches dog lovers new tricks

By Kate Fratti
Bucks County Courier Times
Reprinted with Permission

July 22, 2005

Soft-spoken Melinda Berger, 56, explains she’s a bit of an introvert until she gets wound up about her work. And something I’d written amounted to a bee in her professional bonnet.

I asked her to meet me over coffee at Starbucks in Newtown, so she could straighten me out. She did, and I had one of the most enjoyable conversations I’ve shared in days.
The married mother of adult kids, Berger is a professional trainer who thinks I let down dogs and their owners when I wrote about a training philosophy she finds worrisome. That philosophy is that Sparky will vie with you for dominance.

Humans who think an animal is about to overthrow their reign tend to be too stern and aggressive, Berger says. It’s as though they have license to be abusive.

“Hurts my heart,” she told me.

Your dog should be subordinate, not submissive. If you can get yours to avert its eyes, lower its tail and slink away, you should be ashamed of yourself, she said.

Berger teaches privately and in classes at Indian Walk Veterinary Center in Newtown Township that ANYTIME you employ physical or verbal corrections – punishment – you run the risk of eliciting a fearful or aggressive response. That means you could be creating problems.

Training your dog through positive reinforcement – goodies in exchange for good behavior – is more effective, and it rewards you, too, she said. Being kind just feels better.

Berger is certified through the Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers and a professional member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Counselors.

She says the concept of dominance in dogs is overused and misunderstood. It’s based on wolf studies from the 1940s that are now believed to be flawed.

While dogs are descended from wolves, Berger said, you can no more understand Fido by studying a wolf than you can understand Uncle Ed’s behavior – my apologies here to creationists and Ed – by studying chimpanzees.

“The good news is that your dog is naturally set up to accept you as his or her leader and actually thrives in that environment,” Berger said.

Don’t make a fuss over your animal’s mistakes. The key to a “Dream Dog” – the name for Berger’s training outfit – is making him “a believer.” He must believe you control all the good stuff and that you’ll gladly share it if he’ll just be a dear.
Share really good stuff. No cheap snacks or distracted ear scratching. Your dog will tell you what motivates her – maybe favorite food bits, praise, belly rubs or games.

Berger’s best advice, in the meantime, is to create a no-fail environment. For goodness sake, she said, put the trashcan out of the dog’s reach. He’s a natural scavenger. Who could blame him for tipping the can to sift through deli wrappers and empty food containers? Not her.

She also suggests reading, “Don’t Shoot The Dog,” by trainer Karen Pryor. Or, if you’d like, give her a call at 215-906-9229. Through education, she hopes to teach the merit of positive reinforcement over old-school correction. I guess you could say here’s where she’s hoping to teach us humans new tricks.

Kate Fratti, whose opinion column appears on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, thought competing diet and child-rearing philosophies were confusing enough. Now this!

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Dog offers second try to be mom

Dog offers second try to be mom

By Kate Fratti
Bucks County Courier Times
Reprinted with Permission

July 28, 2005

There’s good news for mankind, but I’m not sure how the dog’s going to take it. I’ve hired a certified professional to help me train her.

I know it’s the smart thing to do, but I still have some doubts about the method that’s been proposed.

Melinda Berger of Dream Dogs says she can teach my little pit bull pal to be a better doggie citizen through kindness. I’m still scratching my head.

Good cheer, patience and compassion didn’t work when it came to child rearing, Melinda. On the contrary offspring never did anything I wanted them to do. Still don’t.

I’ve been good to this dog, too, but still she follows in the kids’ tradition. And I mean I’ve been really good. I grill lamb for her. I let her sit on the couch and sleep under the covers in my bed. I take her for walks in the woods on Saturdays and then give her a warm bath in the kids’ hall bathroom when we get back.

I stopped buying chocolate ice cream because the vet says cocoa is toxic to you-know-who. I had to run interference for the pooch when husband found out.

Strawberry? I don’t like strawberry. YOU don’t like strawberry. Who in this house eats strawberry? Oh, don’t tell me. Don’t tell me!

All this, and still the beast will not refrain from jumping on visitors no matter how I plead. Nor will she stop dragging me along behind her when we walk.

“My money’s on the dog,” hollers a smart aleck neighbor whenever he sees me running to keep up.

Dog will not come when called, let me clip her nails or piddle outdoors when it’s raining unless I come along. I know ungrateful when I see it.

Berger sees it another way. The dog is a dog, not an extortionist. You can’t lazily trade overindulgence for good behavior. (Drats!) Nor should you intimidate your pet into submission. (Pheew. I didn’t have the stomach for that.)

Berger espouses “positive training.” The philosophy says dogs crave the good stuff, and so a smart owner will calmly ignore or redirect a dog’s mistakes and then celebrate successes like crazy.

Treats! Games! Attention, attention, attention! In my kids’ defense, I wasn’t so good at the calm ignoring, redirecting thing. Maybe that was my mistake. It takes a whole lot of “atta’ girls” and “atta’ boys” to make up for just one tyrannical rant.

In the kids’ defense again, they never knocked my mother over or added injury by licking her face. This is not so for the dog. And it’s the primary reason I sought Berger’s help.

The trainer explains there are two ways to communicate to creatures in our care how we’d like them to behave – the carrot and the stick.

“Stick is code word for punish, intimidate, coerce – yell, hit, snap or yank leash, spray with water, throw a shake can [a noise mechanism used to startle],” Berger says.

“Granted, [the stick] will most likely stop the behavior in its tracks. But at what cost?”

She concedes carrot-won results take longer but adds the powerful emotions the dog develops with the training process and the strong positive association the dog forms with you are worth the time. You end up with a dog that chooses to happily follow your instructions, instead of one who has been intimidated into obedient submission.

I’m going to see what she can teach me. It’s too late for cheerfully obedient children. Maybe there’s hope for the dog.

Kate Fratti, whose opinion column appears on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, will keep you posted.

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The Dog Doesn’t Like Me?

The Dog Doesn’t Like Me?

By Kate Fratti
Bucks County Courier Times
Reprinted with Permission

I’m convinced God sends angels to us in the form of ordinary people. He uses them to teach what he wants us to know.

The angle he most recently sent to me has a really cute haircut-short, short silver- rimless spectacles, a soft smile and a fanny pack filled with beef and liver bits.

I enjoy the angle named Melinda Berger so much that I would count her among my friends. Really, I am her pupil. She’s the trainer who has agreed to help turn my pit bull into polite pal.

I sought Berger’s help because the dog weighs just 60 pounds, but has the strength of an 180-pound man. You need that kind of dog’s cooperation. And I haven’t been able to persuade the dog to refrain from jumping on visitors. There also are some issues with coming when called and letting me keep up with her when we walk. Until now, the dog trained me how to behave instead of the other way around.

I’m drawn to Berger’s philosophy of “Positive Training,” which is about encouraging good behavior and gently redirecting bad. I figured a little work and I’d be back in charge. Easy.

Of course, if this were going to be easy, God wouldn’t have sent the big guns.

For starters, my angel had humiliating news.


Am I bleeding? I must be bleeding. Wounds like this bleed.

“Doesn’t like you” weren’t her exact words. Berger would argue that’s not what she said at all.

What she said is that the dog is “sensitive,” and not sure what to make of Mom.

See the ears back, the droopy shoulders, when she comes into the house from the yard?

“She’s not confident,” Berger explains. “She looks worried.”

Could my exasperated tone, confusing commands, mixed messages and too loud and spirited phone conversations with a contrary kid leave the dog wishing she had a calmer, cooler, more consistent commander in me? Looks like it.

Wouldn’t it have been more loyal of the dog to fake adoration in front of the trainer and talk with me about this privately?

The dog visibly brightens at Berger’s attention; looks concerned when she’s faced with me.

The dog has issues with me? The dog?

Berger, of Dream Dogs, makes light of it. No judgment. No big deal. We’re gathering info about the dog. Part of training means learning what makes each individual dog tick. We’re learning to communicate-in word and deed-so she’s cheerful, confident and clear about what it is I’d like from her.

A stressed out pooch is bad news. Dogs act out when they are stressed.

So here it is. While there are all sorts of positive things to teach the dog, there will also be stuff I’ll need to learn. One lesson is to be flexible. Be more accepting and less critical. Quietly observe then fashion a response. Breathe. And have some fun.

I need this like I need a hole in my head.

If I cooperate, I won’t just improve my relationship with the dog, but maybe with some humans.

Before she leaves, the angel puts a positive spin on all of this bad news. “There are many things that dogs can teach us.”

I suppose she wants me to be happy that pit bulls don’t charge by the hour.

Kate Fratti, whose column appears on Monday, Wednesday and Friday in the Bucks County Courier Times, signed on for five weeks of lessons. Her family thinks it’s hilarious the trainer outed Mom as the source of the dog’s angst.

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