Insights from a Dog Trainer: Food – Motivator, Reward or Distraction?


As I was walking to a training appointment I was followed by a puggle who wanted to greet me. Dogs follow me in the street quite often and I am always delighted. The man holding on to the leash was somewhat surprised and said: “Oh you must have treats on you!”

I confirmed his suspicion and admitted that I worked with dogs so I had goodies in my pockets and in my bag. He then surprised me by saying: “We were never able to train this dog: He is so food motivated.”

I didn’t say it but thought: Are you kidding? Food motivation is a gift from heaven.

But I guess you have to know how to use it.

After reflecting a bit about what he said and combining it with the ideas of “clean” training and how to reward effectively I think I now understand what he was talking about.

If food is constantly dangling in front of the dog, if food is used to lure the dog all the time they are so intent on looking for food and how they can get at it that they are in fact not learning anything.

It’s the kind of situation in which we get the famous: He’s not going to “do” it if there isn’t any food involved. When dogs are in that “Gimme the food NOW drooling state” they are really way too distracted to think about what we are asking them to do. They are not motivated to learn how to get the coveted food. They will not gain any understanding of other signals that would get them to respond appropriately to get access to the desired food reward.

I guess that is how food gets a bad rap from a certain segment of the population who may share this mindset:

The dog should perform because the dog is supposed to be ‘obedient’. I want the dog to love me and do it for me and not for the food I give him.  Food is considered a bribe.

Well yes, if you constantly bribe your dog you are in effect doling the food out for free. If you give food for a behavior well done you will get voluntary offers for that behavior!

Elisabeth Weiss is a highly certified, experienced dog trainer in Manhattan, NYC. To learn more about dog training services, contact us by phone at (917) 783-1473 or our contact form.

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