Recently, I was discussing an emotionally fragile dog with whom I was attempting to create a relationship. My friend asked if the dog was food motivated. This is, of course, a common question about a shy dog. However, the very nature of the question implies a misunderstanding of learning, motivation, and the subsequent use of food in training.

Any being that is alive (and I would add healthy) is motivated by food for the sake of their next day on the planet. We are all motivated, as it were, to gain access to the fuel we need to live. When people say “my dog isn’t food motivated,” the response I have to hold back is, “Oh, I’m sorry.  When did she pass?”  because if she ate breakfast that morning, she is food motivated.

So, the question as it’s asked is not really about the dog being food motivated; it’s about whether the dog in question’s fear is overriding the easy use of food as a bribe (see last month’s blog on bribes).  People often use food as a way to “make friends” with a dog. This is a misguided approach, and one that can backfire on you if not done the right way.

Kathy Sdao wrote a very complete blog about when it goes wrong, entitled What Not to Pair: The Consequence of Mixing Consequences.

Basically, when using food to overcome fear, one needs to be careful about how it’s used.  Food can, if presented in the wrong way, come to predict the bad thing or person. Then you have “poisoned” food.  Meaning, when the food gets presented the dog will think, “Wait…where’s the (insert feared thing here).”

It is essentially reverse conditioning — food becomes equal to the bad thing. In this way, almost any one-time reinforcer can be turned into a punisher. You can also do the opposite, by turning the one-time punisher into a reinforcer. Our power to manipulate the minds of our dogs through our control over their lived experience is not to be taken lightly. I have seen dogs in a very bad mental state due to some poorly applied training practices by well-meaning people.

The answer to my friend is “Yes.  Of course she is food motivated.” It will also take more than tossing a few cookies in her direction to change her opinion of me. What I don’t want to do is give her food and then touch her or do something (as defined by her – the subject) that she considers bad. As Sdao points out in her piece, pet owners are doing this when they pass out food to strangers to give to a dog as part of an attempt to create a more social dog.  What happens is the giving of food is followed by evil strangers looming into the dog’s space and scaring them.  So, food in the hands of strangers comes to predict bad things. What the dog is actually learning is to fear food from the hands of strangers — instead of learning that being more social might get the dog a yummy treat. Paying attention to the order of events will help you get the most out of your training time with your dog. If you are trying to teach a pup to like something, try not to use food to lure or bribe them into accepting the stimulus you are working with.  You may end up training, but you might not be teaching what you think!

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