Dogs love food. Well, mostly dogs love food. Food is such a contentious issue. People don’t always like to use food in training, and often even when people do use food, they either don’t use it effectively or they struggle with a dog who doesn’t want to take treats. In the training hall we often see people making all sorts of food errors, so it is time to write a blog about how to use food.
The first issue we see is the “switcheroo”. The switcheroo happens when a dog hits early adolescence and growth slows down. Most families get a young puppy and are astounded at how many calories that little perpetual motion machine can suck back. Let’s say that a pup is 3kg when he comes home, and he is eating one scoop of dog food in total each day. Within 6 weeks that puppy is now 10kg, and eating three scoops of dog food each day! Skip forward another two months and the puppy is 20kg and eating five scoops a day, and then 8 weeks more and he is 30kg and eating 7 scoops a day. This brings our pupster to about 7 and a half months of age and all of a sudden Fido stops eating. In a panic, the average family goes out and spends a pile of money on a different bag of dog food and Fido resumes eating. A week or so later, Fido goes on strike again, and the family spends more money on a third brand of food. Fido resumes eating and two weeks later goes on strike. At about this point, Fido who should be 35kg is a solid 40kg, and has become a picky eater, and the client tells me in class that Fido won’t work for food.
So what is really happening in the “switcheroo”? Often what is happening is that Fido has stopped growing and doesn’t need 7 scoops of dog food! When you change dog foods, novelty will get Fido to eat again, but he doesn’t really need all the extra calories, so a week or two later, he self limits his food and you worry that he isn’t eating enough. You switch again and the novelty entices him to eat for a bit and then he hits another point where the calories are just too much and he stops eating again.
So what happens to food training when the old “switcheroo” is at play? Often the dog stops wanting to work for food because he is already getting far too many calories in his bowl. The first thing that I do is check with the family to make sure that there is nothing going on that would indicate the need for a vet visit. I do a quick visual inspection of the dog and feel his ribs to see what his body score is. The easy way to tell what your dog’s body score is would be to first feel your dog’s ribs and then find the part of your hand that is most similar to your dog’s ribs. Use the pictures below to determine if your dog is overweight. If your dog is overweight, but everything else is normal; he is drinking and exercising and toileting normally, then the first thing I would do would be to feed a bit less food in his bowl. Dogs love to eat, but they are also usually really good at self regulating when they get overweight and then they get fussy about the treats they want for training.
Usually with an adolescent dog who has had several different foods because he has become picky, we see his appetite normalize and his willingness to work for regular food return when we remove some of the calories from the bowl. This is the easiest situation to resolve when it comes to food and training. Once you figure out how much your dog should be eating, take the total amount for the day and divide it by three. Feed 1/3 at breakfast, 1/3 at dinner and save 1/3 for training class. Let’s look at my German Shepherd Eco as an example.
When I got Eco at 7 and a half weeks of age he ate a whopping 2/3 cup of kibble each day. Total. By the time he was 12 weeks he was eating 1 ½ cups, and at 16 weeks he was eating 2 ½ cups. His intake steadily increased over the weeks and months until at 7 months he was about 40kg and was eating a total of 12 cups a day divided into four meals, and he was a lean, mean fast moving doggy machine. I remember thinking at this age that I sure hoped he would slow down soon as I was going to go broke feeding this dog! Predictably at about 8 months he started to skip a meal. That meant that all of a sudden, he went from eating 12 cups a day reliably to eating 9. Whew! That was cheaper! I started to feed three meals a day, but instead of feeding three cups per meal, I fed 2 cups per day and kept 3 cups aside for training. At about ten months of age, Eco started to pretty reliably skip one of his three meals each day, so I took another three cups of food out of his daily ration, which brought us down to a much more reasonable 6 cups per day, and divided that into three, making 2 cups per serving, Eco went to two regular meals and two cups set aside for school. By the time Eco was four he was normally eating about 4 cups of food a day, and just got a few treats in class. Mostly in class at four, he would work for play.
The next thing I have seen in class is the dog who will only work for ultra high value treats. A number of things can be at play there. The first of them is that when the dog is very stressed or overwhelmed, he cannot eat. This should not be a surprise; the same happens to people too. Consider what it might be like to be in a car accident and then have someone offer you a nice dinner. Most of us would find that situation too stressful to allow us to enjoy eating. The same thing can happen when the dog is extremely excited, and that is also true for us. Most of us don’t feel like eating when we are engaged in something like riding a rollercoaster.
Other things can contribute to dogs only wanting to take high value treats too. When your dog comes to class overweight, they are going to be really picky about what they will take as treats. Similarly, if he comes to class right after eating a large meal, he will be willing to take dessert class treats, but not lower value treats. One thing that people often try is to completely deprive their dogs before class. This can backfire too; often dogs who have been deprived enough can be so deeply focused on any food at all that they cannot even think. It is far better to feed more sensibly, and come to class with a dog who is neither overweight nor completely deprived.
Dogs definitely have preferences, and there is a lot of value to knowing what your dogs prefers. I have worked with dogs who do not like liver and making a dog take a treat he doesn’t want works against you as a trainer, even if it is a treat you want your dog to like or if it is a treat you think your dog will like. I have also worked with dogs who like really unusual things like cooked squash, raw celery or blueberries. When I have a dog with strong preferences, I often rank the treats. When I know for instance that a dog likes liver best, and then rollover and then cheese and then bread and finally kibble. I will sometimes take some time to teach the dog to take lower value treats. Working in a low distraction environment I will offer the dog his lowest value item. If he takes the treat, I reward him with the next value treat. In this case, I will offer kibble. If the dog takes a piece of kibble, then he gets a piece of bread. I then offer the dog another piece of kibble. Most dogs will look longingly at the bread. Hold out. If the dog takes the kibble, he gets another treat but THIS time, he gets the next level up; so I would feed him some cheese. Next I will offer him another piece of kibble. He will likely look out for another piece of cheese. Hold out. When he takes his kibble, he will get the next thing on his list; in this case the rollover. Then offer more kibble again. When the dog takes the kibble he gets his top value treat; in this case the liver. I keep working with the dog offer kibble to get a better reward. I keep working on this until the dog will willingly take a low value treat regardless of the situation, in the hopes of getting a better treat.
Perhaps the most common error I see in the training hall is reinforcing every single behaviour without any differential between good iterations and not so good iterations. If you ask your dog to sit and he lies down, and you give him a treat because he did SOMETHING, anything, you are in fact teaching him that trying random behaviours is really valuable, but it doesn’t teach your dog that when you say sit, you mean sit, or when you say down, you mean down. You can actually use treats very constructively to teach your dog the difference between a really, really valuable behaviour such as a fast, accurate sit, when you ask the first time, and a slow reluctant sloppy sit. To teach the difference between a fast snappy sit and a slow casual sit, you can simply choose to reward the best sits to reward with the favourite treat, and then reward the sloppy undesired sits with a low value treat. Dogs can learn really quickly that a good sit gets a good treat, and a poor sit gets a less preferred treat.
Dogs also need to learn about self control around food before you start training. If your dog thinks that if he can see the treat, he can have the treat, then he is going to have a harder time learning to get the treats by doing something to earn them. I like to start all training by teaching the dog to control himself around food (https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/11/12/the-dog-controls-the-dog/ ). Once your dog has learned not to snatch treats as soon as he sees them, you can start to use your treats much more effectively.
As with many tools, treats are a good servant but a poor master. When used well, food is perhaps the best way that you can teach a dog. When used poorly you can teach your dog all sorts of bad habits.