Food Before Thought


As Deni and Albee prepared to head off to a Rally Obedience class the other night, we discussed when to feed the dogs their dinner. Many trainers over the years have advised their human students not to feed dogs before training class. The dogs work better when they are hungry, is the claim. Deni and I pondered this, wondering whether it was good advice, anthropomorphism gone amok, or just plain silliness.

If it is an attempt to look at dogs through human eyes (the anthropomorphism gone amok theory), I guess it can be argued that really wanting something might make a being focus harder on what he or she has to do to get it. Therefore, if the dog really, really wants food, wouldn’t the dog focus harder on figuring out how to get it? Might sound plausible … except for a few problems. One is that the tiny tidbits of food a dog gets as rewards in training hardly take the place of a meal. And, this theory demands that you ignore stacks and stacks of research about learning or concentration and hunger.

Kids do not learn well when they are hungry. A really hungry child, and, probably, a really hungry dog, simply does not focus well. Research showing this has led public schools in low-income areas to offer not only free lunches, but breakfast as well, in attempts to boost concentration and improve kids’ learning.

Adults’ performance also suffers if we don’t eat a healthful breakfast. We know this, yet somehow think that our dogs will focus and learn if they are hungry? Doubtful.

Some trainers make a comparison with human athletes and point out that athletes are unlikely to eat a large meal just before a workout. Sure, but if training class is at 7 p.m., that is not a valid argument against feeding the dog at 5. Anyhow, a Rally class, an obedience class, even an agility class has a lot more in common with a grade-school classroom or a desk job than a triathalon. The dogs are not asked to perform athletic feats for hours, or even minutes on end. They are asked to pay attention to their handlers, to ignore distractions, to figure out what is needed, whether it is touching the contact at the end of the dog walk, sitting and staying for three minutes, or walking on a loose leash. The demands are primarily mental.

But there’s another, more important element. When trainers talk about training, it’s hard to avoid mention of the four quadrants of operant conditioning / behaviorism. The positive reinforcement quadrant is the one we are most familiar with — rewarding behavior we like. Ostensibly, the advice to train hungry dogs ties in with this: The dogs will get food rewards for their performance, and better performance will lead to more rewards. It’s all good, right?

Let’s look at it more honestly. Depriving a being of something it needs in order to get it to do what you want is called … torture. Withholding meals, then providing minute rewards for compliance falls into the “negative reinforcement” quadrant — removing a negative when the dog performs the requested behavior is supposed to increase the likelihood of the dog performing the behavior. Late dinner is about as negative as it gets for some dogs!

I know that comparing delaying a meal with common negative reinforcement techniques like ear pinch is an exaggeration. But comparing dog training class to an athletic workout isn’t? The dog will (eventually) get a meal, so feeding after training is not really abusive. But it is unfair. And it exploits the complete control we humans have over every aspect of our dogs’ lives.

The advice to delay meals might have been conceived by trainers who worked with dogs that are less food-obsessed than golden and Labrador retrievers. I still think it is wrong. A meal and tiny little training rewards are not the same thing. If your dog is unwilling to work for the training rewards you are offering, it is not because you have fed him; it is because the rewards you are offering are not, in that dog’s mind, motivators.

The cardinal rule of any kind of motivational training is that the trainee — the dog — determines what a motivator is and therefore what the reward should be.

If your training treats only motivate your dog when he is ravenous, skipping dinner is not the answer. Try using better treats. Try using a tennis ball, a tug toy — anything that your dog loves — as a reward. I might be willing to work for several hours to earn a paycheck that will arrive next week, but Cali, Jana, and Albee will always choose the freeze-dried liver over the cash — and they want it now, please. In fact, they will choose liver over and over again, at every opportunity, regardless of whether they’ve had dinner.