"I Can't Use Food for Training my Dog!"
I hear this comment occasionally when I get new service dog clients. For the vast majority, we are able to figure out why the dog does not want to work for the food they are being offered. Below are some of the most common reasons.
Why Do We Want to be Able to Use Food?
Having a dog that enjoys working for food helps to speed the learning process as well as offer an alternative to using toys or interaction (like massage, play etc). In the training phase, a dog needs to know she is doing well and food reinforcements are a good way to communicate that quickly and eaisly. Food is something that has intrinsic value to a dog unless he has learned to not enjoy it. Eating is a basic survival need.
In the early stages of training, reinforcement rates need to be high to keep a dog engaged in learning (about 3 to 4 seconds per behavior repetition-Yes you read that correctly! One reinforcer every 3 to 4 seconds!) Giving your dog a toy to play with may slow the repetitions to 1 per 20 seconds or much more. Food is the fastest reinforcer there is. A dog can eat a piece of food in less than 2 seconds and be doing the next repetition soon after. This helps her to do more repetitions in a shorter period of time so she can learn the behavior more quickly than using other types of reinforcement. It also helps to give you another tool to combine when dealing with high level distractions. Using food, toys and interaction together is a jackpot reinforcement gives you an edge for the highest level distractions!
Not to worry about using food forever, though. Once the dog has grasp of the basic behaviors, toys, play, massage and even other learned behaviors can become reinforcers for behaviors and service dog tasks. Eventually, once the dog fully understands the behavior and can generalize the to many public locations, the use of the food can be faded except for special occasions. Over time, the value of working with you will build and the relationship and communication between you and your service dog will grow. At that point, you can then reliably use your relationship to reinforce trained behaviors for more dogs.
There are several common reasons why a dog might not work for food:
Probably the most common reason food may not work for a dog is the handler's own philosophy on what is appropriate to use as a reward. Some people believe that a dog should not be paid using food. They believe that the relationship they have with their dog is enough. That verbal praise combined with an ear scritch is motivation enough.
While that may work for a few dogs, unfortunately, dogs that offer undying devotion for your love without you having to earn it are few and far between. For the vast majority of dogs, until you have taken the time to build a positive working relationship with her, you'll need to use other things in addition to your relationship to motivate her.
Dogs, like humans, initially do what gets them what they want. Then over time as they learn to master behaviors and skills, they begin to enjoy the activity and interaction itself. In the meantime, food is an easy choice for most service handlers because the vast majority of dogs enjoy eating. Let's not overlook the fact that they need food to survive.
Some handlers unconsciously undermine their success with food. They don't use the food correctly, or they skimp on the amount. In the early stages of training, it must come fast and be high enough value that the dogs deems it worthy to work for. There is a skill to using food for training. It pays to take time to learn it so you and your dog can succeed together.
Some people think they have to carry food around with them for the rest of the dog's life. Not so. If food is used correctly, it is used to train a behavior, then other types of reinforcers are substituted. Anything from toys and play with the handler to real life reinforcers are introduced to maintain the behavior. They might be as simple as getting to go through a door, going for a car ride, greeting someone and some of the trained behaviors can become fun or rewarding for the dog to do. Of course every dog, even well-trained ones, appreciate the occasional food reinforcer.
Unfortunately, there are some in society who say "Training with food is cheating." It becomes a voice that triggers doubts in your success. Whether that voice is from another person, or comes from within, if you want to change it, you are the only one who can.
Repeat after me: "Training with food is a useful tool that builds success!"
"Training with food is a useful tool that builds success!"
"Training with food is a useful tool that builds success!"
Free Feeding Practice
One commonly overlooked practice that people do to lower a dog's value of food is to free feed. Free feeding involves placing a full food dish on the ground and letting the dog eat what she wants when she wants how often she wants. While this is convenient for the handler, it removes the dog's motivation to eat and ultimately earn it. That's why the dish sits there full for most of the day. The food becomes meaningless to the dog and the dog is eating and doing nothing in exchange for it. The food is available at all times.
A tip to help with food motivation as well as potty issues in a dog of any age is to put the food bowl down twice a day. If the dog doesn't eat after 10 minutes, pick it up and try again at the second feeding of the day. By placing it down just twice a day, it builds scarcity for the dog so he will eat when it becomes available. Suddenly the food has more value. Do this for at least a week before you try the next step below.
Next, measure out the dog's total daily ration of food. Remove the amount you need for training, and divide the remainder into two. So, if you plan to do 50 repetitions over 2 training sessions, take out 50 kibble and set those aside in a treat pouch. Then twice a day, place the rest of the food into food puzzles and let your dog work for it. Getting dogs to work for their food builds value for it too. It also helps by giving the dog a job to do and burning off mental energy so you don't have to spend hours physical exercising her. Since most dogs enjoy having a job, this gives eating some meaning.
Using Food That is Too Low Value
Often people infer that their dog will not work for food because they use food that is too low of value for the distraction level of the environment they are training in or the level of difficulty or the length of time they are asking from their dog. Using hard or dried commercially made treats away from home usually isn't enough. If the task is too hard or the distraction level is too high, most dogs will disengage. Use real meats like beef (cooked heart is very high value for most dogs, fresh or canned tripe too (stinky but high in demand), pork, and lamb. Chicken and turkey work well but do fall apart in bits.
Adding sardine juice or beef gravy stock to other foods increase the value. Squares of hard cheese, cooked omelette squares are enjoyed by most dogs. Dogs with lactose intolerance is actually not as common as it is made out to be and fermented milk products like cheese and yogurt are more easily tolerated. Mashed potatoes or yam, yogurt, thick pea soup, and meaty baby food can all be put into a food tube for easy lickable delivery (try a camping store and look for either squeezable condiment containers, or re-useable toothpaste tubes). Even just adding garlic powder or mixing other smelly foods into a bag of kibble can increase their value enough to motivate a dog to work for it.
Dog will Only Eat "Human Food"
I am talking about dogs who won't eat their kibble but gobble it down if you add leftovers from your meals. Part of this involves your philosophy of not feeding dogs "people food". Let's look at this a little closer. The better "dog foods" are made from food that is leftover from processing human food. The soft portions of a chicken carcasses are removed from the bone and boiled. The fat is melted down. Leftover grain from processing cereal and other human foods is cooked and vitamins, coloring and preservatives are added back in to the mix. The food is then put into a machine, pushed out a hole and cut to make the kibble shape. Then it is cooked and dried. In reality dog food is IS refined people food, but is it not as fresh or palatable and so often has lower value to the dog.
If your dog is refusing to eat it, she may be bored with the same food day in and out. Giving her a variety of food not only flavors but texture, moisture levels and shapes may help. Dogs developed as scavengers over the last 14,000+ years, eating whatever refuse they could find around human settlement. That involved variety. Like in human diets, it is the variety that gives us the breadth of nutrients we need to thrive. Check out other feeding options for your dog. There is commercial kibble, canned food, moist food, food rolls, raw food, cooked food and there is also the homemade option. All of these may be higher value to your dog an she will be willing to work for them. Do your research no matter what choice you make to ensure your dog is getting what she needs to maintain physical and mental fitness to work as your service dog. Note that not all veterinarians support all kinds of food.
If the refusal to work for kibble is new, check the food out for the best before date and take a sniff of the bag and look at a handful of kibble. Kibble can go moldy in a moist environment and dogs detect pathogens that make them sick. This causes them to refuse to eat. Trust your dog and return it to the retailer with the receipt. If that's not the issue, a vet check is in order.
Dogs who have food allergies may not enjoy eating since their intestinal tract is upset. They have connected eating to feeling bad and may refuse to eat. In addition, handlers may find it hard to find food of high enough value for training due to the severe limitations of what the dog can eat. If this is the case, the handler must be creative. Perhaps moistening a dry food with water or real meat juices or other real flavoring that the dog is not allergic to. Or if the dog is eating only soft food, it can be placed in a food tube for delivery (try a camping store and look for either squeezable condiment containers, or re-useable toothpaste tubes.) Try dehydrating soft food to make a hard treat that can be tossed.
Inadvertent Pressure While Eating
This is one that a handler may not be aware they are doing. It can come in several forms.
1. They are in a hurry to do something and after they put the food down, they put social pressure on the dog to eat. "Hurry up." And then get angry, drop the tone of their voice to tell the dog to hurry. Or, similarly, if the dog drops food on the ground, he is verbally admonished for it. Eating becomes a punished behavior.
2. During training, the handler gives small inadvertent punishers as they are delivering the food so the dog quits eating. The dog does what was asked, then is either too slow, or does something that the handler sees as undesirable (like jumping up and grabbing an object during training the retrieve) and then gives a verbal reprimand or pushes the dog out of their space. For sensitive dogs, the handler may not even be aware of the level of impact on the dog. In this case, the dog is connecting the punisher to the trained behavior, or even eating of the food, not her behavior at the end of the training session. The result is a dog that looks like she doesn't want to work for food or can't focus on any training activity very long.
A good test to see if your dog is afraid to eat with you nearby is to have a neutral person (ideally a good positive reinforcement trainer) try training the dog with food. The dog is usually more than happy to train with the neutral person as there is no history of positive punishment. They may also appear less subdued (happier) than with their usual handler.
Building Value for Toys until Dog is Toy Obsessed
Toys and games are a great thing to have as part of your training reinforcement strategy. Using toys for training can inject enthusiasm, speed and joy into a less motivated dog. But, some dogs will reject food when in the presence of toys while others can't think when they are within reach.
Ideally, you want to build value for both so you have many options to choose from when training different behaviors. Some behaviors lend themselves to toys better than food and vice versa. Food can be used to calm an over-aroused dog in training. Toys can put a dog with low impulse control into over-arousal (excitement level where they lose control).
After training is complete and the behaviors have been proofed, toys, like the food, need to faded. They can be used when your dog is not working and during breaks in work for your service dog.
If you find that your service dog in training suddenly stops eating in some locations but will happily focus and work and eat in others, consider her stress level as a cause. Stress can be good or bad (distress or eustress). Arousal level may also contribute to not eating.
At a biological level, if a dog who can eat normally while training away from home, suddenly stops eating, this can be an indication of severe stress. In order to prepare for flight or fight, the stomach shuts down and the blood flows to muscles for running away or fighting. A dog that can't eat is a stressed dog.
Stop training and take the dog out of that environment or, at the very least, give her time to adjust before asking her to do anything. After a few minutes in a safe environment, she should want to eat again. If she can't, you will want to figure out if it is caused by fear or arousal and the impact this is going to have on her as a service dog. If she cannot function, she will be of no help to you. There are options available (such as desensitization and counter conditioning processes) but consult a profession positive reinforcement trainer for help in creating and carrying out a plan to help your dog overcome the fear or stress.