I used to starve my dog.
Before you come at me with torches and pitchforks, hear me out. I withheld Desmo’s dinner the night before we went to bite club because my trainer was of the belief that “dogs will work harder for their food if they’re hungry. I fully admit that at the time, I did not feel confident in advocating for my dog, and I thought that my trainer Knew Everything. I now know, however, that this is flawed logic.
Think about it this way — if you went to school on an empty stomach, would you learn as effectively? I doubt it. Growing up, I remember my mother insisting that I eat breakfast before I left the house — when I didn’t, I was less focused on learning, and more focused on my rumbling belly (at least until lunchtime)! Granted, adult dogs’ digestive systems are different than ours; it takes them 8-10 hours to fully digest kibble, which means that they easily adapt to two meals a day.
While I was withholding his dinner, my gut kept telling me that “this is wrong,” but I ignored it because I thought that my trainer knew better than me.
I’m happy to report that Seabee gets two full meals a day, is an absolute JOY to work with, and works hard AF for even the smallest piece of dehydrated beef lung. In his genetics, he has what’s known as “food drive” and “prey drive.” This means that he will work hard for food, a ball, a tug, etc — anything to get his perceived reward.
What Motivates Your Dog?
If you’re wondering what your dog likes to work for, run a preference assessment! This can be something as simple as taking two different treats (one in each hand), and presenting them to your dog. The hand they sniff first is their preferred treat. If your dog isn’t food-motivated, you can try different toys, use praise, etc. The idea is to find what motivates your individual dog.
Different dogs are motivated in different ways. That said, behavior reinforcers generally fall into one of four categories: sensory, tangible/edible, attention, and escape.
A dog is doing something because it feels good. Examples of this include digging, stick chewing, rolling in the grass, etc.
Tangible / Edible Reinforcement
The dog performs a certain behavior to get access to a toy or food. This can include tugging, eating treats, etc.
A dog engages in a specific behavior to get their owner’s attention. This can be obvious actions such as jumping up on you or pawing / nudging at your arm, and it can also be something such as barking or peeing in the house. In both instances, the dog gets some sort of attention from their owner. We may perceive it as “scolding the dog,” but they see it as attention; ie “hey cool mom’s barking so I’m going to bark even more!!”
The dog is in an undesirable situation, and performs behavior to get out of it. Behaviors can include pawing / scratching at a closed door or crate, running away, etc.
It’s now become second nature for me to run preference assessments whenever I interact with my dog — sometimes he wants food, sometimes he wants off-leash freedom, sometimes he wants to go sniff the telephone pole, sometimes he wants his ball, etc. By determining what he wants in each moment, I can easily reward him for desired behaviors. For example, if he’s straining at the leash to go sniff a spot on the ground, and I ask for a sit, the moment his butt hits the ground, I mark the behavior, and we run over to the spot together for him to get his sniff on.
Dogs are cognitively similar to a 2-3 year old child, and it’s up to us as their caretakers to set them up for success.
What sort of preference assessments are you going to run with your dog? I’d love to hear about them!!