Training Dogs: Food is Fine and Your Dog Will Still Love You

Using food to train dogs doesn't mean your dog is using you so time to move on

Posted Dec 31, 2016

Are dogs eager to please?

​I've always been surprised, perhaps shocked, to learn that some people think that using food to train/teach dogs is a bad habit because then the dog will not really feel attached to the person(s) or love them. A recent essay by dog trainer and journalist Tracy Krulik called "Eager to Please?" is a good place to revisit whether or not food should be used in to train dogs. And, are dogs eager to please? We just don't know concludes Ms. Krulik.

Having lived in the mountains outside of Boulder, Colorado, with a number of dogs who were able to run free when I was home, and having watched countless dogs at dog parks and on various trails where they could run free, I've seen food used to keep them under control with absolutely no indication that the dogs didn't feel extremely closely attached to -- I feel comfortable saying they loved -- their humans. One dog with whom I shared my home, Jethro, knew that when my hand went into my right pocket there was a treat for him, and when he saw the slightest move in this direction he came to me. This was essential because some of our neighbors were cougars, black bears, and coyotes, so I couldn't use a word or a sound to cue Jethro to come to me when it was essential to do so immediately. I didn't want the other animals coming to me/us too! Did Jethro love me? I'm sure he did. Was he using me for food? Not at all. And, when it was okay to call him by saying something like, "come," "come on, we gotta going," or simply "J," Jethro responded without any treat. 

I also had a neighbor who questioned my use of food to train the dogs with whom I lived. She'd say something like, "Jethro is using you and doesn't really love you." Living in risky environs, it was essential that dogs came when beckoned, but Maya, her dog, was the proverbial "loose cannon," who rarely listened to her human. However, she came to me when I offered ... food and a hug. Maya, too, knew what my right hand going into my pocket meant. And, like Jethro, she also came when called when it was safe to do so. Jethro, Maya, and a whole host of other dogs also were wonderful loving beings who didn't need food to express their affection for me and for others. Their safety came first and food worked just fine.

It's a people thing

Ms. Krulik's essay, for which I was interviewed, seemed a great source to consider the question of whether or not dogs are eager to please and whether or not it is okay to use food to train them. I reached out to her to see if she'd be willing to be interviewed by me and she said "Yes," so I sent her some questions to which she kindly responded. 

Why did you write "Eager to Please"? Can you please give readers some background?

Emma; Courtesy of Tracy Krulik
Source: Emma; Courtesy of Tracy Krulik

When I adopted Emma, I lived in a town where most dogs are trained using aversive tools such as prong, choke, and shock collars. It was common for me to see trainers on street corners holding long leashes and then “correcting bad behavior” by snapping the leash, which caused the dog’s prong collar to pinch into his neck. All the while, I learned that the way to train Emma and help her overcome her fears was by using food. The dramatic contradictions sent me down a path to learn as much as I could about the most humane and effective ways to teach and care for dogs, so that I could help Emma find health and happiness and also help other dogs through my writing. This article really is a culmination of two-plus years of discovery. 

Why do you think some people continue to think that food isn't a good way to train/teach a dog?

I think there are a lot of different reasons. Sometimes it might feel like a hassle to have to have food on hand. But more often, I think it has to do with the individual person’s state of mind. Some people want that "unconditional love" from their dog and they think that if they “have to always bribe him,” he’s not doing things because he loves them. Or it’s a respect issue. Some say that their dog should behave properly, just as they expect their human children to do, and they shouldn’t have to bribe the dog for polite behavior.

Why do you think that some people -- a decreasing number, let's hope -- think that some form of dominance is the way to go?

The word “dominance” tends to be really misused as a way to describe dogs [please see Note 1]. It seems to be the catchall term for any behavior a person doesn’t want a dog to do. If a Husky pulls on a leash, “She’s so dominant!” If a German Shepherd jumps on people when they walk into the house, “He’s being dominant again.” Early this year, I saw a Pointer becoming increasingly stressed in a crowded veterinary waiting room. She was pushed too far when an Aussie approached her, and so the Pointer growled and snapped to ask the Aussie to back away. The Pointer's guardian responded by slapping her head and apologizing for her behavior. “She can be so dominant. I’m really sorry.” he said.

So… I don’t know about decreasing numbers. There are still extremely popular TV shows and YouTube videos that repeat the dominance mantra over and over. Many many many dog trainers misuse the term continually, and frankly, it’s the language that many veterinarians were taught, so they continue to say it too. And the sad truth is that when people think their dog is “being dominant,” they think they need to teach their dog a lesson to show him his place—like the Pointer who got slapped. That poor pup was terrified by the environment, and now her guardian is hitting her. It’s heartbreaking. Thankfully, organizations like the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior have spoken out against using dominance in training, so the conversation is at least moving in the right direction. 

What do you hope to accomplish in your essay?

I hope it gets people thinking, and I also hope it gives people who train with food the confidence to continue to do so if and when they are challenged by friends, family, and neighbors. Isn’t that crazy? Our society is so accustomed to pointing out negatives, that we have to defend ourselves for wanting to be kind to our pups. In fact, a high school friend posted this comment to me on Facebook right after reading the story: “We have been training [our puppy] to sit, pee outside, stop biting, etc. using treats and have already been told we’re spoiling her by doing that. Instinctively, I felt like I was doing the right thing, but reading this is definitely reassuring!” Mission accomplished. :) 

How do people receive the message that "It's about reward" and that a dog doesn't love them less if food is used to teach them lessons of peaceful coexistence?

I’ve found that most people don’t buy it if you just tell them. They have to experience it. After I’ve worked with a dog for a while and the guardians see how much their relationship has improved by using food to train rather than scolding and punishing, they are able to start seeing things a different way. But these ideas of dogs being dominant and needing to be taught a lesson have been ingrained for generations. It’s not a simple, “aha!” usually. 

What are some of your current projects?

I’ve put my freelance writing on hold for a bit as I’m currently leading the efforts to create a global campaign and website— iSpeakDog—to help people better understand their dogs through education on body language and behavior. I’m partnering with The Academy for Dog Trainers (where I am entering my second year of studies), the Pet Professional Guild,  the Humane Rescue Alliance, and The Bark Magazine, and we’re launching both the website and "iSpeakDog Week" on March 27, 2017. Our hope is that if people understand why their dogs do things like chew, dig, and bark, and how they look when they’re feeling different emotions, it will strengthen their bonds and ultimately give better care to pups. 

The dichotomy of food versus true love is ridiculous: Dogs aren't always working us just for food

Thank you, Tracy, for agreeing to be interviewed. As I mentioned in your essay, "I think that to play the dichotomy of food versus true love is ridiculous ... it's just not supported by any research at all."

In our interactions with dogs (and other animals), it's all about relationships, a point aptly made by dog trainer Kimberly Beck who founded The Canine Effect. And, food can be used to develop and to maintain strong reciprocal relationships between humans and dogs without any loss of love. That using food means a lack of love is a myth, just as are dogs don't display dominance (Note 1), dog's don't feel guilt (Note 2), and we should never hug a dog (please see "Hugging a Dog Is Just Fine When Done With Great Care"). Hugging a dog is just fine when done on their terms, not ours. 

Tracy's experiences with Emma reflect mine with Jethro, Maya, and many other dogs -- they were not working us for food. They didn't or don't love us any less. Food works and it should be used when it does. It's time to get over the view that dogs are using us for food and don't really give a hoot about us. Perhaps some do, but using these instances, which, as far as I can determine, are very few and far between, to come up with a rule that food shouldn't be used because the dog doesn't really love us is ... ridiculous.

A good New Year's resolution -- train your dog with treats if it works. 

Note 1: A note concerning the "D" word, dominance. I agree with Ms. Krulik on the misinterpretation and misuse of the word "dominance." Dogs (like numerous other animals) display dominance, but it should not be used in training or teaching them to live harmoniously with us. More detailed discussions can be found in these essays and links therein.

Dogs, Dominance, Breeding, and Legislation: A Mixed Bag

Dogs Display Dominance: Deniers Offer No Credible Debate

Dogs, Dominance, and Guilt: We've Got to Get Things Right

Social Dominance Is Not a Myth

Dominance and Pseudoscience: Making Sense of Nonsense

Dogs, Dumbness, and Dominance, Redux

Note 2: Ms. Kruiik also writes a bit about the "G" word, guilt, and suffice it to say, while we can misread guilt in dogs, we still do not know if they feel guilt. For further discussion please see "Do Dogs Really Feel Guilt or Shame? We Really Don't Know" and "Dogs, Dominance, and Guilt: We've Got to Get Things Right" and links therein.

Anonymous and ad hominem comments will not be accepted. 

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in April 2017 and Canine Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to the Best Lives for Dogs and You will be published in early 2018.