Training with food and relationship, (My grandmother’s chicken and dumplings!)

Yes, I will be guilty of anthropomorphizing here. But my grandmother’s chicken and dumplings were the inspiration many years ago when I had the light bulb moment and became a cross over trainer. As early as I can remember, my grandmother (we called her Nannie) always made chicken and dumplings when we came to visit. It became my most favorite dish on earth, and still is to this day. I am nearly 60 now, and Nannie is long gone from this earth, but to this day I never eat chicken and dumplings (I have her recipe!) without feeling the love and remembering my Nannie who made that special dish for me. It was only an extrinsic reward, but it served as one of many reinforcements to our loving relationship. As Nannie grew older and could no longer cook for me, food of course did not matter. I loved spending time with her no matter what because we had the history of reinforced love between us. Our relationship was all that  mattered.

So we recently had a discussion in a trainers group about reinforcers, and of course there are many different perspectives here regarding food dependency in training and performance. In this particular discussion, the self -labeled “balanced trainers” said that clicker/+R training is solely about food and nothing more-a bribe as such. They also claimed that many dogs are not food motivated anyway. They did however see the value in training new behaviors with positive reinforcement-but they also believe that once the dog “knows the behavior”, corrections are in order when not performing properly on “command” .  So, the “balanced trainers” use food and +R in the learning stages, but then justify corrections later on when they have decided that the dog should be error-free. Of course that idea is all based upon the notion that as trainer/handler they are always perfect, so therefore the dog should also be perfect, or “be corrected for being wrong”. To quote Susan Garrett, “When you correct a dog, you are actually punishing him for your poor training.”  Yes!

The other side of the food dependency issue is that it can undermine relationship as the priority. I agree that food can certainly become problematic when used in training with no strategy or emphasis on relationship in the process. But when properly used, by prioritizing personal engagement along with strategic marking and food reinforcement, I maintain that food can and should be an enhancement to learning and relationship-not instead of. Food is ever present and necessary in our lives, and as humans it is not limited to being a primary reinforcer, (i.e. simply eat to live). It is also an event, a pleasure and enhancement to life, and a reinforcer of relationships as such (the chicken and dumplings).  It is a huge part of our everyday socialization and family relationships. We shop for and prepare meals together, enjoy the time spent eating together, eat out for fun and entertainment. The association of anything with food, including work and a relationship, can be very powerful-conscious or not.

I also want to emphasize here that most dogs are at least potentially food motivated. As Bob Bailey has said, “any animal that is not food motivated is dead”. As one of the most powerful motivators for all living beings, it is rare not to be motivated by food when it is used properly in the training process. And I am not referring to “nothing in life is free”-as in having the dog work for every morsel of food they get. To quote Kathy Sdao, “plenty in life is free”! As it should be. My husband and I frequently share food with our dogs just for being cute, funny, or just because we are eating something that they want too (as long as it is not bad for them of course, and they know to wait politely). We also just talk to them and tell them how wonderful they are, while they sit on our laps. We play with toys and take them for walks. We comfort them during thunderstorms-and yes we use food then too! Our dogs don’t hear harsh words-they don’t need to. Some might say that our dogs are spoiled. But they are loved, happy and willing workers and enjoy our company. And food is only a part of that, as it is a part of everyday life. Personal interaction must be present to have a relationship. So while food may be ever present in +R training as such, that does not mean we cannot or do not have a personal relationship with our dogs. Not anymore than it does with the rest of our family with whom food is shared.

So here are just some things that I have learned (some quite incidentally) over the years with regard to incorporating food into my training and building the kind of relationship that I want with my dogs. Hopefully it carries over into performance as well. Nothing really new here, but maybe some good reminders for those who might read this:

  • Build and maintain the positive association with the food and you into everyday life: I always hand feed my dogs and we often train for meals. But even if not training, I always talk to them while they are eating from my hand. We have a little ritual for meals and in doing so, over time, meals became an event and socialization between us, however brief. I originally started this many years ago to keep my dogs from bolting their food-and the added benefits have been enormous! This takes me less than 10 minutes a day (about 5 minutes, twice a day). And it is not necessary to hand feed, but at least make the mealtime a special event by personally engaging and teaching your dog to enjoy your presence along with their meal.

In training:

  • Always pair food reinforcement with personal engagement. Prioritize your relationship, not the food. After the mark (or click), verbally praise and pet (if your dog enjoys touching, some do not) while delivering the food reinforcement. Associating your interaction with the food adds value to “you” as a reinforcer.
  • For food to have value, your dog must have an appetite. Do not overfeed your dog, and consider the food used during training as a part of the total daily ration.
  • Variation– In actual training I sometimes just use part of the regular meal, and sometimes other treats. Variation is key-even higher value switched to lower value often doesn’t seem to matter, just being different can add value from the dog’s perspective. New or difficult behaviors might benefit from an extra special treat-but some dogs can become fixated on the food if too high in value, so observe carefully and choose wisely.
  • Delivery technique: Keep the food out of your hand until after the mark or click. This is hard to do sometimes, but I do keep it in mind always. This keeps your dog task focused rather than food focused. (The exception here would be if you are shaping novel behaviors-where the presence of food actually drives the offering of behavior for dogs who know shaping. That’s another topic.)
  • Randomization of food rewards: Once your dog is consistent at performing a behavior on cue with a history of high rate of reinforcement (food and praise), begin to randomize the food. But still always praise and engage as part of reinforcement. The randomization of food with consistent personal engagement builds the bridge to performance in the ring, and most of all a positive relationship.
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