Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Food, glorious food!

A lot has been said about using high value food (garlic chicken, steak, fish fudge) versus low value food (Charlee Bears, Cheerios, kibble) in training. Many trainers firmly believe changing up to higher value treats is the key when resolving a sticky training issue.

I’m not saying it is. I’m not saying it isn’t.

After training  UDs, UDXs and OTChs. on four different dogs, I’m saying I don’t think it matters.

But maybe it’s just my dogs.

If you truly believe using treats of varying “value” makes a difference in your dog’s ability to learn and work, then it does. I'm not saying you're wrong. Every dog is an individual and there are few hard and fast universal truths that govern dog training.

My dogs have all been goats. They’ll eat anything that doesn’t eat them first and they’ll eat it with enthusiasm and want more. I used to spend a lot of time agonizing over what treats to train with because back then I believed that my dog would be “better” if I used the “best” treats. Then I wised up. It. Did. Not. Matter.

My first dogs were shelties and no offense to the sheltie folks out there (they know what’s coming) but shelties will eat anything that fits in their mouth and if it doesn’t fit, they’ll make it fit. I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule but Jess and Connor loved their cookies, no matter what form they took. Food induced paroxysms of joy, whether it was a piece of kibble or leftover roast.

The Belgians weren’t any different. I always joked that Jamie was (is) such a food hog because he was raised by shelties.

Phoenix loves food - his food, my food, the cat’s food, things that were never really intended to be food. He will eat anything, anytime. I think the only thing that registers in his brain is “I’M GETTING FOOD!” I really do not think he cares WHAT he’s getting, just that he’s getting SOMETHING.

I get largely the same level of enthusiasm when rewarding him with Charlee Bears as I do with bits of leftover pork chop. I suspect the food is only in his mouth long enough to register the fact that it was there. He does not savor his treats or reflect with gracious appreciation about the scent, flavor, texture, moisture content or chew-ability. It’s gulp and go and gimme more!

If your dog has a genuinely low food drive, maybe it would pay to up the ante and not mess around with treats that don’t have much scent or taste appeal. But if your dog is off the scale about food anyway, the way food is delivered is more important than the actual food itself. I could rev Phoenix into a frenzy while playing games with salad croutons while some trainers would not be able to keep their dogs engaged if they were handing out hamburgers. Okay, that's an exaggeration but . . .

. . . this brings me to Point B - is the dog working because of the food or is he working because he enjoys playing the game with you? I've fallen into the trap of letting the food do all the work. It creates a lovely illusion of focus and engagement . . . until it isn't there anymore. I also learned firsthand that using wonderfully delicious homemade liver brownies and salmon cookies in training puts so much emphasis on the food that their absence in the ring is magnified.

Having said all that, I don’t use much food in training any more. Some, sure, but not a lot. I use whatever I have available and like to use stuff that won’t make a horrible mess in my pocket or stink to high heaven.

Food is a powerful tool and it will always be in my toolbox. With the next puppy, there will be tons of cookies in his initial training. There will also be lots of toy play and personal play as well. I’ve learned the hard way that relying on any single “motivator” to do all the work is a big mistake.

I'll explain about the calf in the basement soon. I promise. 


  1. Hmmm...Piper is all about the food, but she notices the difference. Cheerios are perfect for shaping something new, both because of the tiny size and because if I have something more exciting then she loses her head and just throws behaviors at me in the frantic hope that something will get the special treat to her NOW. On the other hand, in a highly distracting environment like a show, Cheerios and Charlee Bears don't quite cut it. We need CHEESE (her caps). It is worth it to her to put in the effort of the entirety of the utility exercises, knowing that there will be CHEESE at the end. We play between exercises, and she likes that, and I would like it if that were enough. But really, there is greater happiness when there is the possibility of CHEESE.

  2. My Tommy is not at all food-driven, but he does enjoy treats at specific times and on given occasions. I try to get him good stuff because it's not a huge volume. Overall, the prospect of going out to play will win out any time, even over the prospect of a meal!

  3. There have only been two times that a extra special treat has come in handy.

    The first was with a rescue Basset hound mix who couldn't have cared less about anything except the floor. He got all the basic commands easily except once. We pulled out some chicken and that got him working.

    The other was an older rescue doberman who was totally shut down. We tried for 3 days to engage her and get her working. It was slooooow going. On the third morning a piece of Bacon fell on the floor. She worked beautifully for Bacon and then transitioned onto regular treats with in days.

    My personal dogs don't care what you have. They will eat it.

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  5. Coach is so "high energy" which translates as screechy crazy, that I discovered I had to use lower value treats in order to get him to calm down enough to work. If the treats are too good, he goes completely crazy. A strange problem to have.