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To Treat or Not to Treat - What is it all about

To Treat or not to Treat –

When it comes to controversial topics this would have to be one of the most divisive in the dog training world which brings out all the nut jobs and key board warriors intent on hammering their own ideological values on everyone and trying to destroy those who disagree.  I want here to give a balanced approach to this question and the reasons why behind it including some science.  This Blog is not designed to be long and overly comprehensive but to give you food for thought – as you should always be aware and have options.

So some of the things I wish to cover are

  • The keyboard warriors
  • Food – the hygiene of it
  • Your Dog is FAT
  • My Dog doesn’t like Treats
  • Higher vs lower value treats – the tricks some trainers use
  • Fairness to Dogs (what the latest science says)
  • The 21 Day dilemma
  • randomization and the challenge to humans.

So let me first start by saying I have no issue with food when used correctly.  Any BALANCED Trainer worth their salt understands the place food has – but they also understand it’s not the be all and end all of the world.  Every dog is Unique in its temperament and every owner is unique as well.  There are 5 Primary Motivators to dog training and then any of these can be Secondary Motivators as well.  A balanced trainer knows the Pro’s, Con’s and dangers associated with each.

They are Play, Prey, Food, Tactile and Verbal.

As an Organisation in Puppy school we use Play, Food, Tactile and Verbal to build neural connections and appropriate dog behaviours.  (Prey is never taught for dogs in a domestic situation by us and is highly discouraged to help avoid child bites).  In Obedience we teach humans how to use Tactile and Verbal motivators to build the emotional connection and respect to the human.  In Higher obedience with agility we use food but teach how to phase it out and or using other forms of positive reward.  In Home Training we use whatever Motivator is required to achieve the clients needs.

But let us go back to food as this is the question we most get asked.

Keyboard Warriors – The bain of every balanced trainer – we often get attacked via social media and otherwise because we don’t subscribe to the ideology of only allowing food.  I recently had to threaten action against a very large organisation that are food oriented only after some of their “Dog Trainers” starting spouting rubbish on our advertisements at us over no use of food in Obedience – their ideological standpoint was in their view the only way – in fact they tried to tell me that sex (procreation) was a primary reinforcer for training dogs

– I kept screen shots of it all just in case.  And this is the quality of dog education that is being taught publicly.  It really is ironic that the whole perception of correcting a dogs behaviour by giving it an adverse reaction is any different from them trying to change people’s behaviour by being this way online – sit there and ponder that next time you see it happen in a forum…….FYI there is a lot worse we have on file.

Food – the hygiene of it.  The number of times I have been told by people that they were told to use ham, chicken or cheese is – well – a lot.  So I want you to think about this for a minute logically – is the food between 0 and 4 celsius to stop dangerous bacteria developing? I hear you say it’s a dog why should it be? Then I would say why do we keep raw food diets for dogs refrigerated? Unless there is so many preservatives and garbage in it that it wont go off and then you really have to ask the question why are you feeding garbage to your dog.  Consider also that when it is not refrigerated every time you reach into your dirty little festy pouch of dangerous bacteria do you or your kids wash their hands afterwards to avoid cross contamination and you getting sick? And are you using Lactose free cheese – because I am pretty sure we are the only species that has the lactase gene to process milk products – it will upset your dogs tummy.

Your Dog is FAT – You need to face the facts – calories in vs calories out.  If you are going to use food make sure you remove the equivalent portion of dinner – this means you will have to ration your training so as to not remove much of the nutrient dense food they NEED vs processed crap they don’t – feed your kids up on junk food and see if they want dinner…….  Overweight dogs are a serious problem and if you do not learn how to get your dogs off treats you will make them fat.

My Dog doesn’t like treats – awesome you will have a skinny dog for life – ask your trainer how to use other methods.

Higher vs lower value treats – There are many types of treats out there – we do our best to use your shop bought ones – the same as you would – but again you will find that you may turn up to a class with beef treats and the trainer has chicken – no wonder the dog will do anything for a trainer right? Much higher value food which makes them look great and you look crap.  Why would you put processed human crap into your dog?  Chances are you probably wouldn’t have bought it as a human.

The fairness test – in a recent study published in the Journal Current Biology – researchers at the Wolf Science Centre in Vienna Austria tested both Wolves and Dogs in a study of fairness with food.  What they found was that if one dog was given a higher value treat for doing the same thing as another dog with a lower value treat than the dog with the lower value treat would stop co operating for its trainer.


So what does this mean for Obedience classes that use food in a group setting – Better make sure you all have the same food or your dog wont want to work for you…….

But again the results don’t apply as indicated in an individual setting at home as there is nothing to compare with for the dog – so in a house environment if used appropriately this would work.

The 21 day dilemma

You have 21 days to create a behaviour and fade off the food before the effectiveness starts to diminish very quickly.  To be able to do this there are various training techniques from clicker, to verbal marking, to simple praise but when you want to “mark” this behaviour you then also have to be very aware of what you are marking and what behaviours you are accepting from your dog to which you are rewarding.  If you get it wrong you are giving a reward for something entirely else.  So when you are teaching your dog as a simple human – how do you mark a behaviour, grab the food – activate the bridge – and reward all within 2 seconds? Remember you only have 21 days and in that time you have to consider everything else above – is it any wonder the average person goes this is just all too hard and gives treats for the life of the dog?


So when we go to fade out food during the above 21 days – there is an extremely important element that is required to achieve success – and this requires a neat little theory called randomization – it is the reason why humans gamble and it is how we remove dogs off the food.  Only one catch – as a species we are not random – in fact we are one of the most predictable species on the planet – behavior wise we fall into rhythms and routines in an instant – it is why your dog can read you and know what you are doing before you do it – ask your dog when walk time or dinner time is? So if humans are so predictable in our actions – how hard will it be to randomize those actions?  There are a couple of ways and a good trainer will teach you how.

So as you can see whilst food can be an incredible learning tool at the onset for dogs – the problem doesn’t lie with the dogs – but with the ability of humans to be able to do the above.  It is challenging to achieve and I believe personally something that is not suited for a class situation if you want the humans to succeed with their dogs.  The problem then lies that instead of removing food, humans rely on it and don’t learn to create the emotional connection with their dog which should be the next step so that they are the treat not the food.  This is why as an organisation in Obedience we choose to help you develop your emotional connection with your dog using Tactile and Verbal Motivators not food motivators.  Whatever method you choose personally to use – be proud of the fact that you have taken the first step toward gaining control and a rewarding future with your dog.

Life is Full of Decisions – Make an Informed One