Wait… what?  Why would you do that?  Well, you wouldn’t, or would you?  Poison, like many English words, has multiple meanings and uses, especially when it comes to slang.  In the current dog training parlance, “to poison” something (usually a cue — check out the Poisoned cue by Dr. Rosales-Ruiz) means to inadvertently punish something you intend to be a good thing, or at least a neutral thing. If you do this enough you make the something not trustworthy, unpredictable.

This brings us to the nature of a punisher: a punishment –and for that matter, a reinforcer — is defined by its function.  The learner (dog, horse, cat) will either do less or more of a behavior depending on whether they find what happens after the behavior fun or terrible – FOR THEM.

So how does this apply to food?

Well, say for example you want to get your dog into the crate that they don’t like being in (aside: you need to train that separately).  You offer them your hand full of chicken. Your puppy comes over and takes it.  Then you pick them up and put them in the crate. Eating chicken was just followed by the crate (a punisher in this scenario).  You have poisoned chicken, and by proxy you have poisoned their trust in you and what you offer, and even your outstretched hand. Because sometimes its just the chicken and sometimes its chicken and the crate.

I recently worked with a dog who would dart in, cower and run away from a hand that held out food.  My only explanation is that she must have been baited with food too many times to trust the hand that feeds her.  This made me and her owner so sad.  Now, I don’t know for sure if my theory is right because I can’t ask the dog. But I can  say that an outstretched hand of food has been at some point punishing for her, because the behavior — running up, loose and happy, to eat food — has been diminished (definition of punishment), and the behavior of avoidance and fleeing has been increased (definition of a reinforcer).

I also have recently been working with a dog who recalls in, takes her food reinforcer, and then flees. Why? I can only say that, for her, staying to see what happens after the food is given, has been punished.

So what is one to do?
Don’t bait. Train.
Understand that your dog will tell you if they are being punished or reinforced.
Listen to your dog.