Food for thought!

By Michael Tucker
Published in VIC DOG September 2006

The wide use of food as a reward in dog training continues to increase. BUT have people really stopped to think what they are doing? It might look easy to many when they see their dogs respond to come when called to a food treat held in the hand. Handlers are taught that this is a modern and very gentle method of training which is called, “positive re-enforcement”. Very fancy words, aren’t they? They are enough to lure most people into thinking that, because it is a new method, it must be the best or at least better than methods used years ago. Just because something is new does not mean to say it is the best. On the contrary, it can be worse or the worst! We live in an age of seeing all sorts of things advertised on television. Before viewers think about purchasing those advertised goods, they should ask themselves quite simply, “Are those items advertised to help us, or are they advertised just to make money?”

In writing this article I feel that, having been a professional dog trainer and instructor for fifty-five years, I have a moral obligation in the interests of good dog training, to help handlers by guiding them back on to the right track to train their canine companions effectively and reliably.

I wrote in my first book, how an eight-week old puppy can be initially taught the recall with the aid of a piece of meat just before one of its three daily meals. That initial training, preferably carried out up and down the kitchen floor, is only given to lay the foundation of the recall and sit. The next stage should be carried out on the leash, then later by dropping the leash and finally off the leash. Using the food as an incentive to come should be done for no longer than three weeks. Puppies go through many stages during puppy hood. We have to know when to leave off using the food treat. If it is used beyond twelve weeks of age, then the puppy is highly likely to perform only for food and not out of respect and affection it should have for its handler. I stress the point that no puppy should ever be starved so that the handler can get a good result. It angers me when I hear of puppies being starved for twelve, twenty-four or even forty-eight hours, depending on their rising ages, so that handlers and dog clubs can achieve success.

Several years ago a man brought me a 4-year-old St. Bernard for training. He took the dog over from his friend who, due to ill health, was unable to care for the dog any longer. However, I trained them successfully in seven lessons to do the basic obedience. On completion, the new owner was so appreciative and thanked me very much for all the tuition I had given to him and his huge dog. Then he told me that he had first approached a dog training school which trained with food. On learning that the dog was four years old, the instructor told him that he must starve his dog for four days before attending his first lesson! The owner vehemently declined to attend, and rightly so.

Other unrelated cases, which involved two four and a half month old puppies of different breeds and owned by different owners unknown to each other, came to my school for basic training. They informed me that the instructor at the dog school they had attended only a few times was unable to get their dogs to respond to food. So they were requested to only feed their dogs once a day, in the hope that they would respond. Knowing that one should never treat any young puppy that way, both dog owners decided never to return to that place again. The matter was duly reported to the RSPCA. When questioned, the instructor backed down by saying that it was only a suggestion made to the dog owners, not a request. The investigating inspector told the instructor that that sort of suggestion should never have been made. When clients attend a dog training school with their dogs they expect to be given good advice, not bad advice.

Another most inappropriate use of food is in connection with the worst temperamental trait in dogs — aggression! Handlers are being shown how to entice their dogs away with food treats when they show aggression towards other dogs. In doing this the instructors and handlers are actually rewarding their dogs for being aggressive. It is as simple as that, yet they do not seem to understand or try to understand how their dogs’ minds work.

When a puppy displays bad behaviour like aggression, it should be corrected by the handler taking hold of it by the scruff of the neck, saying, “No!” and giving it one quick shake. The puppy will immediately and instinctively know that that correction is the same as it received from its own mother. So wherever possible one should stick as close to nature as one possibly can. As soon as the puppy responds favourably, it should be quietly praised. Later, the puppy should respond to just the word of reproof, “No!” when the handler reads its intentions for bad behaviour. When simple corrections are made like this the puppy will not become afraid of the handler, instead it will respect the handler just as it respected its mother. Regrettably, many dog training clubs today are telling handlers not to correct their dogs — how absurd! Would they rear their own children in the same way?

Some time ago an Australian Obedience Champion came to my dog training school. As soon as the vehicle had pulled up outside my house, the handler opened the back door and the dog jumped out and ran around my neighbour’s front garden. Despite numerous calls it refused to obey. Finally, I asked the handler to walk towards it and secure it with a leash. Having accomplished that, we each took a seat in my carport for a consultation for that was the purpose of handler’s visit. The dog was put into a drop stay position about three yards away. In less than a minute it got up and walked over to its owner. It was duly put back and told to stay again. That happened several times in the first few minutes. Finally, I asked the handler to let me hold the dog on the leash. It then relaxed whilst we conversed.

The main topic of our conversation was the use of food and I was asked why I did not approve of it. Before I went into all the reasons, I found it best to use their arrival as a classic example. I explained that there was an absolute lack of control when the dog alighted from the vehicle without a leash and not waiting for a command to come out on to a busy road. It disobeyed several commands to come when called. Lastly, despite several attempts, the dog would not stay in the drop position. Naturally, the handler was speechless. I think the motive for the handler’s visit was an attempt to convert me to training with food. Such an attempt was stupid and futile!

At a later date I observed the same dog work in an Obedience Trial. When the handler returned to the dog in the group stay, for which it was awarded full points, they departed from the ring under the rope on the opposite side of the ring entrance, then walked towards their vehicle a short distance away where it received its food reward. Sure, the dog had no intention of moving in the stay exercise, because its food reward was behind it in the vehicle. Yes, a very cunning procedure!

Three years ago I was invited by a Shire Council to give two demonstrations of obedience and tricks with my Border Collie at a public festival. A team of seven dogs and handlers from a long established obedience club did the same at other times of the day. The person in charge informed me that they had to be very careful because four of their seven dogs were aggressive! I soon found this to be true when I watched them perform, constantly using food! I wasn’t surprised!

Hopefully, these stories will make people sit up and take notice as to what has been happening gradually in the dog training industry in recent years. The time has come when people should very carefully consider, analyze and question whether these new dog training methods are reliable or not. Finally, let us never forget the proven methods our dedicated forebears studied and established years ago. If they knew what is going on today, they would more than likely turn in their graves!

Michael Tucker

Australian Association of Professional Dog Trainers Inc.