Food For Thought

All of us in the animal industry have forever used food to teach and train our pets. Over recent years as I’ve learned more about the brain and the cognitive side of things I’ve questioned what we are really teaching our pets especially when it comes to behaviour problems. Yes, some dogs undoubtedly love their food as do some people but the question is how we use it and what are we really achieving.
Traditionally we’ve all been taught that food is the motivator to use when teaching a trick. Sometimes it’s combined with a clicker and other times just randomly thrown out there. We’re told to reduce the treats starting with intermittent rewarding and phase them out but I question whether that even results in a reliably taught behaviour. Many dogs will not perform unless there is a reward available which tells me that the food has become and intrinsic part of the action. I see more reliable results when we capture actions and teach them that way.
We are told that by using food and toys we are changing the dogs’ association with something from a negative one to a positive one. But does anyone stop to question that we might actually be creating a negative association with the food or the toy?
What if the dog is in panic or complete over arousal where it is not possible to think something through? How is pushing a treat at the dogs’ nose teaching him/her to manage those feelings or to calm down? How does that over come fear? Of course, it doesn’t. If we really understand the mind then we will know that this just becomes a crutch – it’s a bit like sticking a band aid on a wound and not using any antiseptic. We are not treating the root of the problem! And then there is fear.
I often use the following example. My issue would be big spiders. Put me in front of one let alone a room of them and I am not going to cope very well. Remembering that dogs are mammals just like us and that all mammals have the same brain let’s look at this.

Imagine I’m in a room of tarantualas. My mind and body will immediately go to the fight/flight response. These are 2 of the 5 survival instincts Fight, Flight, Flirt, Freeze, Faint. These are driven by adrenaline, cortisol and noradrenaline. The pre frontal cortex which is responsible for reasoning will shut down. We are unable to control our responses once this kicks in. I suspect my first response will be flight but I can’t because the door is shut. I might even Freeze. So now my focus might be on keeping an eye on where each spider is.

So now let’s imagine someone is now trying to hand me chocolate saying “look at me” just we have been taught to do with our dogs. Am I going to be able to follow that instruction or even register it? no, I’m not! Remember I’m being driven by all the factors listed above and my focus is on surviving. Now there is also a possibility here that I might develop a negative association with chocolate in that I’ll always associate it with the spiders. Why is that? Because in the scenario of panic the association of food and the object frightening us can still be made when the intellectual mind is shut down (which by this point it will be) and in this case it will be a lot stronger than it would be if thought was involved. Equally if someone was trying to hand me wine, I might drink it in the hope it will help me cope better or knock me out but even if that is the case, I haven’t learned anything about managing my mind or dealing with the problem.
Taking this a step further I now have a rope attached to me and the spiders are moving. I don’t actually know what I would do here but I think I would probably start fighting at this point.
Sadly, this is a scenario our pets are put in all the time. We are forever making them confront the very thing they are frightened of – traffic, people, other dogs. We are not giving them the right strategies to cope.
What is needed here is a systematic approach of giving them space to think and cope whilst teaching them to manage rising panic levels with good coping strategies. As we’ve already established food in these situations doesn’t help with this as we need to work at what is happening in the mind.
The other problem with teaching the “look at me” is that the dog is not thinking about what is going on around it in order to learn what to do about it. Assuming the dog can cope with food at this point then it is just looking at the food not dealing with the problem. If we want to change a state of mind dealing with the root problem then we need an animal that is listening and thinking about the coping strategies it can choose from. We need to give the animal back some control in these situations if they are going to learn to manage their minds.
But I hear all the time “But if I use food then I have focus on me” Do you really? Sadly, you don’t, you just have a dog that is interested in the food in your hand, the focus is on the food but not on you. Take it away and you see a dog that is not coping well with the thing that is the problem.
I see many clients using food in these situations and once we take it away, we see the behaviour is not resolved at all.

Most of the time when we use food, we are just pre conditioning an action. Yes, the dog may enjoy what it is doing especially if it is trick training but there are times however there is another side to it, the dog may want the food but doesn’t enjoy what it has to do to get it!
An example of this is crate training done with food and toys, often quite successfully and yes, many dogs love their crates, there is no dispute there in many cases but ask yourself this. Just because your dog willingly goes into the crate when you throw a treat in does it really enjoy the physical separation from you? In some cases, it is yes but in many the answer is no. We have not changed the way the dog feels what we have done is create a conditioned response that we have taught.
In human society we have been pre-conditioned to many things – go to the dentist, undergo invasive tests etc. We go willingly but we don’t enjoy it!
So, if all mammals have the same brain why should animals be any different? Food for thought!


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