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Food rewards: Way to a dog’s heart IS through its stomach

October 1, 2019
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FILE - In this Feb. 12, 2018, file photo, Emmy, a harrier, keeps her eyes on a treat offered to her by handler Mike Gowen in the benching area before competing in the 142nd Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, at Madison Square Garden in New York. Research shows that training dogs with food is more effective than using other rewards, like praise, and doesn't have the risks of alternative methods. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)
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FILE - In this Feb. 12, 2018, file photo, Emmy, a harrier, keeps her eyes on a treat offered to her by handler Mike Gowen in the benching area before competing in the 142nd Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, at Madison Square Garden in New York. Research shows that training dogs with food is more effective than using other rewards, like praise, and doesn't have the risks of alternative methods. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

Why train your dog with food rewards? A growing body of research says it’s the easiest and most effective way to train.

“Using treats during training is the best way to guarantee that your dog will repeat the behavior you want,” says the American Kennel Club.

Other methods don’t work as well, experts say, and can even harm your dog and the pet-owner relationship.

Erica Feuerbacher, an assistant professor in the Department of Animal and Poultry Science at Virginia Tech, did a study that compared a food reward to the reward of petting and praise. Dogs were clear about what they preferred: “They’ll work harder and respond faster for food than for social interaction,” she says.

Dogs do love to be with us, but our monkey chatter doesn’t mean that much to them: Feuerbacher has found that dogs will stay near a person who’s praising them for the same amount of time as if they’re being ignored.

And if you want your dog to obey just because they love you, get real.

“If only it was like that!” says Zazie Todd, author of the forthcoming “Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy” (Greystone Books, 2020). “If your boss stopped paying you, you’d probably stop going to work pretty quickly. You need to motivate your dog too.”

Dog trainers also talk about “life rewards” like getting to play or go for a walk. These can be useful, especially to maintain behaviors you’ve already trained, but are more complicated and take longer.

“For most everyday behaviors that ordinary people want to teach, food is quicker and easier,” says Todd.

“You want to find a trainer who’s using modern reward-based methods, and that means they’ll be using food to train a dog,” she says.

Consider the alternatives that don’t involve rewards. Punishment also works to change behavior. After all, in nature, animals that don’t avoid painful experiences aren’t going to live long.

However, research has shown that using punishment in dog training has serious side effects. “The risks include fear, anxiety and stress,” says Todd, “and they include an increased risk of aggression, because the dog may react badly to punishment or the threat of punishment.”

It also affects the human-animal bond. One study found that dogs trained with aversive methods looked at their owners less frequently than dogs trained with positive reinforcement. That’s the opposite of what you want when you’re training. “They associate you with bad things, and become fearful of you,” says Feuerbacher.

Although some trainers use language that obscures this, Feuerbacher says that if you look closely, you’ll see that what’s actually getting their results is something aversive, like a leash jerk. “Oftentimes their ‘energy’ is a looming physical threat that bad things will happen if you don’t comply,” she says.

By contrast, giving a dog food has good side effects.

“If you have a fearful dog, using food is especially important because it builds a positive association through Pavlovian conditioning with the person providing it,” Feuerbacher says. Translation: The way to a dog’s heart really is through its stomach.

Some pet owners say their dog won’t work for food; Feuerbacher says those dogs might be overfed. Food used for training should be part of their ration of calories, not an addition. So feed a little less to make sure your dog isn’t too stuffed to want more.

While some dogs will work for just a portion of their kibble, for most, you have to offer something better. Feuerbacher says, “Break out the spray cheese or liverwurst — people may need to be creative.” Research has shown that even dogs get tired of the same flavor all the time.

Also, it’s possible for a dog to be too frightened to eat, so if you have a fearful dog, avoid training in a situation where he’s overwhelmed by unfamiliar sights and sounds.