Whenever the topic of the use of food in training is brought up, there generally seems to be some resistance to the idea. Many feel that food will not produce a reliable dog or will produce a dog that only performs for food.
Let’s review for a moment what we are actually doing when we train a dog. Simply stated, we are teaching the dog a conditioned response. The speed at which this response is learned (conditioned) depends on two things: The strength of the reinforcement used and the interval of time after a correct response that the reinforcement is received. For some dogs praise is sufficient, for others the lack of discomfort is used, and for still others, food is highly motivating. All of these can be misused and can become ineffective.
For teaching most of the open and utility exercises we use food along with praise. Whenever food is used it always follows praise, with praise being given even when food is not. Each of the exercises is broken down into simple reinforceable steps which build on each other to produce the final, complete exercise. When learning a new step, the dog receives food for every response. If, after progressing, we must back up to a previously covered step, he does not get the food every time he does it correctly, but every other or every third time. In this way, we are not constantly feeding the dog for a correct response, but only when something new is learned. Since praise always precedes the food, praise becomes more meaningful to the dog.
For many years food has been used as a motivating force in the study of conditioning. Laboratory subjects can be cut back to 80% normal intake of food or water in order to increase drive for food or water which in turn makes these stronger reinforcers. For a working dog this practice could produce some unwanted side effects. A dog must be physically at his best in order to work well, if food and water are reduced by
20%, he may not be physically at his best and his performance may deteriorate.
One of the main arguments against food is that it can not be used in the ring. It is quite true that food can not be used in the ring, but by the same token we can not use a lead in Open and Utility; we can not praise during any of the exercises; we can not use a tab on the collar, a chute, or a jumping stick! These are all techniques which can be used to teach the dog particular exercises. When we begin training to develop reliability, we repeat the exercise over and over to condition the dog to respond a certain way regardless of the surroundings. If the dog’s performance begins to deteriorate, we can use these techniques to motivate the dog or overcome a problem. Food can be used in the same way. However, if we must rely on the lead, praise, food, etc., in order to control the dog or have him respond correctly, then the way in which the technique was applied is the problem, not the technique itself.
This article is not intended to convince anyone to use food or to suggest that it is the only way to train a dog. It is intended to point out that food can be used as another tool to train a dog, and, as with any tool, care and understanding must be used in its application.
©1980 W.H. Morrison, III