Do you worry that if you use a lot of food to train your dog, they’ll only ever care about the food and not you?
I once heard the words “I don’t want to use treats to train my dog, he should work to make me happy” come out of my mouth, so I get where you’re coming from.
And I have a question for you.
(and I promise that question is not the usual “well, you wouldn’t work for free, would you?”
My name is Jake and I used to be deeply skeptical of food-based training.
I wanted my dogs to listen to me and hang out with me just because, well, that’s what they’re supposed to do! The idea of using treats to get them to listen felt like bribery. And I especially didn’t feel great about using treats to help get a new dog to like me. Wouldn’t that just mean they liked me for my snacks?
The stock answer that the positive dog training industry has in response to concerns like these is “well, YOU wouldn’t work for free, after all. You have to pay your dog for their work, too.”
A solid point. I don’t disagree with it. But I get how that answer can feel… less than satisfactory.
You didn’t get a dog because you wanted an employee. You wanted a friend! Do we have to pay our friends to hang out with us, too?
There’s a better way of looking at this. Which brings us to my question for you:
When you look back on your fondest memories with your favorite people, how many of those memories involve food?
Chasing down the ice cream truck with your friends on a hot summer day. The way your grandmother’s kitchen smelled when you visited, because she always insisted on cooking for you. Roasting marshmallows (or lighting marshmallows on fire) on a family trip. The time you and your roommates got drunk and attempted to bake a cake and it went hilariously wrong.
Humans have used food to build relationships since the dawn of time.
Our holidays are celebrated around a table. When we’re getting to know a new person, we go out to dinner or coffee. When we want to catch up with an old friend, it’s “let’s grab lunch!”
When a loved one suffers a loss and we feel powerless to help, we bring them food.
Food is how humans say:
I love you
I’d like to get to know you
You’re safe with me
I missed you
Everything sucks but at least we have each other
So when it comes to one of the closest relationships humans can build -a partnership with a dog who will be your faithful companion until the last beat of their heart- why would we suddenly break this tradition?
Bringing a bag of treats on your walks with your puppy so you can reward their good choices and build engagement is not all that different from meeting up with a friend at Olive Garden every Tuesday for dinner and glass of wine.
In both cases, food is the catalyst for connection, not the sole connection. It’s about having fun together and building a bond.
And I haven’t even touched on the fact that the entire human-canine relationship was built on the sharing of food. We can talk about that another time.
And yes, there is more to training and life than food.
It should not be the only reinforcer you use, and there can definitely be problems if we rely on it too much.
I’m sure you have fond memories with your favorite people that don’t involve food at all. You should also build some non-food based memories with your dog, too.
And in the cases of dogs who are so food-motivated they can’t focus on training, it helps to take some time to actually teach them how the game of training works. “Okay, if I do this, I get that.”
As we talk about in our other content and courses, play, affection, shared exploration, and real-life rewards are some of the other ways we can reinforce desired behavior and build connection.
Food is just one piece of the pie. But it is a helpful piece, and if we avoid it, we do ourselves a real disservice
So yes, I used a hell of a lot of food when raising my current generation of dogs. It turns out that all my fears about food-based training were unfounded; food jumpstarts our bond by teaching the dogs that I am fun and trustworthy, and the Provider of Good Things.
Just some food (get it?) for thought.