a Taj MuttHall Dog Diary: Food Rewards?

Friday, December 23, 2011

Food Rewards?

SUMMARY: Me no eat, me run.

There's an interesting article here about dogs who won't work for food. The author makes a provocative claim:

Food is something every dog has every day. Unless they are ill, there should be no reason for our dogs to turn down any snacks we offer them. But many dog owners claim their dogs won’t work for them for food treats as a reward. How can this be? Dogs are scavengers by nature. Could it be something we humans are doing that puts them off sometimes?

After reading the article, it becomes clear that he's really addressing muggles* with dogs, not "dog people," most likely not people who compete in dog sports. And he does raise good points for that set of people.

However, he seemed to imply that all dogs and owners fall into the same category, and I felt compelled to respond after reading the article and the follow-on comments:

To continue with what a couple of people have started: I have had four dogs with whom I compete in Dog Agility. They all have taken almost any kind of food reward in low-activity situations--say, working on trick training, no matter how active the trick is. But insert running and toys into the equation, and my mixed-breed (Jake -- sheltie? BC?) would push food out of the way to get to the toy, and my current border collie (Boost) will not take food at all in these cases (say, for downing on the table or stopping in the contact zone). Even a high-value treat like meat, she takes only if I insist and often just holds it in her mouth, doesn't swallow it. "Me not stop eat food, me want go!" Apparently the only negative connotation for the food is that they have to stop long enough to take it and swallow it, and they don't want to stop. I guess.

Even as a puppy, my border collie wasn't excited about dinnertime for months; was more interested in watching my other dog eat or in wondering where her toy was.

My agility instructors have all given instructions on how you can teach a dog to take a treat as a reward, because there are cases (such as those mentioned above) where you want a calm reward, not an energetic reward, and it's basically the process of making taking a treat a trick that is then rewarded with the toy, so eventually the value of the toy reward transfers to the food reward. I haven't pursued this much, but I've seen it work for others.

So, these are not typical dogs or typical owner, but they don't seem to fall into the categories in this post.

Tika, of course, places a higher value on food than on almost anything--she'll spend 30 seconds at the end of a dogwalk (in class) sniffing for microscopic pieces of food, or veer out of her way when running full tilt on course because some earlier human dropped a piece of kibble in the lawn somewhere.

What do the rest of you think? What's your experience?

*muggle, of course, being from the Harry Potter books and means specifically "a person who lacks any sort of magical ability and was not born into the magical world," but is gradually being adopted to mean "a person who lacks a [fill in the blank] ability and is not part of the [fill in the blank] world"--for example, geocachers refer to nongeocachers as muggles.

geocaching, well, that's a whole nuther thing.


  1. For Katie it's food food food. I've tried to substitute toys for reward, but ultimately it's the food. Back when we were still in agility classes I was rewarding for her 2o2o at the bottom of the A-frame. Then we put a series together and I just said good girl when she stopped, then I ran off toward the next obstacle. Got there and realized she wasn't with me. Because she was still 2o2o back at the A-frame waiting for her treat. And she WAS NOT GOING TO MOVE till she got it!

  2. Sometimes it's about the toy, sometimes it's about the food! Lots of times depends upon whether we're working for our dinner our not - me and Gracie, or whether we've already had our dinner and agility is the reward! But have to admit, I do like a good piece of cheese or pasta, anytime, anywhere.

  3. Miley, my shelite, sometimes wont take food when running agility. I think she just wants to keep running. Sometimes even at the start line. I want to reward her stay and she just keeps moving her head out of the way and wont take the treat. But she is also picky about food. She wont eat cheese or french fries. All the other dogs love it.

  4. Food is a complicated thing. Tika's highest priority is always food, but she's a pickier eater than Boost, whose food interest is low.