by Casey Lomonaco
There are a lot of dog training “tools” that I prefer not to use, but the one piece of equipment I wish every dog owner would throw away is…
THE FOOD BOWL
Most dog owners feed their dogs every day (hopefully). Hopefully, people measure out their dog’s food into appropriate portions and provide one or two scheduled feedings per day. Some people choose to “free feed,” which means food is constantly available in the dog’s bowl, and the dog may help himself whenever he so chooses.
WHAT MAKES DOGS DOGS
Q: What is the evolutionary purpose of a dog? Why did dogs evolve from wolves, and what makes them “domesticated”?
A: If you haven’t read it yet, pick up a copy of Ray Coppinger’s book Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution. Coppinger has a PhD in Biology and has devoted his life to the study of dog behavior, evolution, and origins. Coppinger asserts that dogs evolved from wolves as humans evolved from hunter-gatherer societies to permanent settlements. Human settlements created a unique ecological niche; what we would refer to as “garbage dumps.”
Garbage dumps create free food sources for wild animals. If you don’t believe this, you obviously have not spent much time in the Adirondack forests near any dumpsters and seen the black bears that congregate to feed around these “free” food sources.
In any case, garbage dumps were not a factor when human populations were mobile/unsettled. When humans congregate in a designated area for an extended period of time, waste accumulates.
Coppinger asserts that it was in fact human refuse which originally drew wolves to our settlements (charming, no?). Within the wolf population, as in all populations, there were behavioral variances. Those wolves which tended to stick around the garbage dumps despite the presence of humans were more likely to cash in on the ecological bonanza of free eats provided by permanent human settlements. Those that were spooked more easily and would retreat in the presence of humans missed the spoils of our refuse. The phenomena at work here is called “flight distance.”
The wolves that had a lower flight distance threshold evolved differently than their less companionable, considerably more suspicious, kin. In relatively short time, these wolves adapted to the human (aka “free food”) niche. Along with this evolution came proportionately smaller skulls, brains, and teeth. It requires less brain power to get free food than hunt for your own.
WE ARE THE ULTIMATE FOOD BOWL
OK, so what does all this have to do with anything (besides the fact that if you’re a dog nerd like me, Coppinger’s book reads like a page-turning thriller)?
It has everything to do with building a relationship with your dog. Dogs became dogs through seeking food from people. It’s what makes them dogs. It taps into their very “doggyness.”
This is what makes positive reinforcement training especially valuable in dog training - it speaks to the very nature of what is dog. Dogs became dogs through seeking food from humans, not through imagining us as “concept wolves” on two legs. Providing food, not being the alpha, is at the very nature of how dogs evolved to be our “best friends.”
NEVER LOOK A GIFT HORSE IN THE MOUTH - PUT A PRIMARY REINFORCER IN THE MOUTH INSTEAD!
Dogs love food. Period. Any creature of any species that is not “food motivated” would be dead.
So why let that valuable reinforce go to waste? Put it to work for you!
A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE ON NLIF
I grew up in an area where dogs lived off leash from puppyhood. It was a rural environment, where resident dogs spent hours running through woods, field, and stream with neighborhood kids and other neighborhood dogs. They chased squirrels and deer. They dug holes wherever the hell they wanted. They came home at night exhausted, dreaming sweetly of the hundreds of prey chases and scent trails they followed. They were mentally and physically satisfied, happy dogs. Nobody really took their dogs to classes, and most of us were proud if our dogs could “sit,” “down,” “shake,” and “rollover.”
Our dogs didn’t run away. Sadly, some fell victim to the road, but none of them ran away.
Now I live in a suburban environment. Despite loving my neighborhood, I still feel caged in. I am, after all, a country girl at heart and yearn for a life outside of the city (if you choose to call Binghamton a city).
Here, if a dog gets out of their fenced in yard or escapes their leash or tie out, they take off. Run as far as they can, as fast as they can. Why?
DOGS AND MODERN LIFE
Most dogs today don’t live this type of life. For safety reasons, we often need to employ management tools like fences and tethers to keep dogs safe. Dogs no longer get to roam, freely interacting with others from their kind when and if they choose, chasing each prey animal they come across, digging wherever they wanted for as long as they wanted, sniffing a hundred scent trails.
Most dogs are forced to fit into the confines of modern society - long work hours, tired owners with more obligations than they can realistically handle. Few of us can provide this type of lifestyle for our dogs. The trouble is, just because we cannot provide this type of lifestyle doesn’t mean our dogs crave it any less. This is the infamous “culture clash.” Modern human lifestyles often don’t provide anywhere near the mental and physical stimulation requirements required by our canine companions.
Dogs are an interesting amalgamation. They have the same hunting instincts as their wolf ancestors, but a new and different perspective on food seeking which incorporates dependence on humans. A truly happy dog will have both aspects of his personality satisfied through his interactions with his owner and his daily life.
TAP INTO YOUR DOG’S INSTINCTS
You may not be able to provide your dog with five to eight hours a day of off leash romps through the forests, meadows and streams. You may not be able to provide unlimited squirrel chases and opportunities to interact with other dogs, horses, humans, cats, etc., at your dog’s every whim. Due to the constraints of my current living environment, I often can’t give that to my dogs either. I feel your pain.
Let’s talk about that first instinct, the one that links our dogs with wolves: the desire to hunt. Dogs want to stalk, chase, grab, and shake prey. It is my personal belief that opportunity to participate in the prey sequence qualifies as a primary reinforcer for most dogs. It taps into their very “wolfiness.” We can do this from applying the Premack Principle.
The Premack Principle asserts that more probable behaviors can reinforce less probable behaviors. Have a “squirrelly” dog? The opportunity to chase squirrels (more probable behavior) can be used to reinforce a recall or focus (a less probable behavior). In laymen’s terms, “if you eat your spinach, you can have your ice cream.”
Most of these aspects of the prey sequence can be manipulated through training in the form of stalking, tug, and retrieving games. Using these types of games taps into each dog’s inherent “wolfiness,” the wild predator living within each of our beloved doggy companions, from Chihuahua to Malamute.
So how do we tap into their “dogginess,” that which distinguishes our dogs from their wolfy predecessors?
Through behavioral contingencies which include food provision (in short, positive reinforcement training!).
Another way we can meld the dual doggy needs of engaging in “wolfiness” (hunting practices) and “dogginess” (seeking food from humans) is through incorporating food rewards into games which tap into the predatory sequence.
This means introducing food dispensing toys - Kongs, Tug a Jugs, Buster Cubes, Canine Genius toys, Nina Ottosson toys, etc. Dogs want to hunt for food, to work at it, to dissect items to obtain nutrition. Food dispensing toys fulfill both of these needs.
This also means introducing food-seeking games - hide and seek, “find it”, and introducing tracking exercises. The cheapest and easiest food-seeking game is what I call a “kibble hunt.” Instead of throwing your dog’s food in a bowl, make a kibble hunt’ hiding dinner throughout the yard or the house and letting your dog find his food with his nose. Now, instead of inhaling his food in .8 seconds, it takes your dog half an hour, forty five minutes of brainwork/mental stimulation to tire him out.
You can also tap into your dog’s innate desire to seek food from humans through positive reinforcement training techniques.
PUT YOUR DOG’S FOOD TO WORK FOR YOU
If you’re going to feed your dog anyway (and I hope you are!), make him work for it. Providing plenty of predatory outlets will tap into your dog’s “wolfiness” - chase games, tug, opportunity to “dissect” toys to retrieve food, or (if you’re like me) feeding a carefully constructed prey model raw diet.
Just as no dog will be entirely happy without having his “wolfy quota” filled, no dog will be happy without having his “doggy quota” fulfilled.
Since we cannot often provide the full doggy quota of unlimited time bounding through field and stream with conspecifics as well as favored humans, we must tap into that basic need in other ways. This should be through increased physical exercise, play opportunities, and working for his food. Remember, this taps into the core of his very dogginess.
Food dispensing toys, kibble hunts, tracking and other scent games, shaping and capturing exercises, all tap into what makes your dog a dog and is at the heart of what makes dogs want to connect with us. It is the very source of their domestication.
A WOLF IN DOG’S CLOTHING?
If you follow dog training discussions at all, you know there is a pretty distinct divide between those that feel positive reinforcement training is the way and those that feel techniques grounded in dominance speculation are more appropriate.
The truth is, neither camp is right.
In order for a dog to be fulfilled, you must tap into both his “wolfiness” and his “dogness”.
His “wolfiness” is not related to “alpha hierarchies” which have been disproven to science but to his evolutionary history as a predator - one who wants to chase prey, dig after it, chase it, catch it, grab it, bite it, shake it, dissect it, and consume it. Fulfilling these basic needs is provided not through intimidation, corrections, or “domination” but through play which taps into these reservoirs of carnivorous drive - tug, fetch, dissection, shaking toys, etc.
His dogginess is not related to wilfulness, stubbornness, or a “desire to please” but to an innate desire to seek food, shelter, and security from humans. Again, this is what makes a dog a dog. The reservoir of dogginess can only be filled through providing appropriate interaction with conspecifics and in the ways in which we provide our dogs with the primary resource, food.
Hopefully, this entry illustrates the importance of food in dog training and the influence of food on the evolutionary history of dogs as they relate to humans.
Many critics of positive training techniques will argue that it is “unnatural” for dogs to learn from humans through food rewards but that it is “natural” for dogs to view humans as their pack leader and through physical corrections.
I argue that we should leave the physical corrections to the dogs, and let them use those methods to instruct each other regarding the behaviors which are/are not acceptable to their species; and that we use our bigger brains, opposable thumbs, and ability to manipulate food delivery to our advantage while providing satisfactory outlets for out dogs’ desires to hunt as descendants of the wolf through play.
Is it just me, or does this make way more sense than discussing “energy,” “auras,” and “rank” in manipulating dog behavior?
My raw feeding friends call our dogs “kitchen wolves.” This inherently makes sense to me. In spirit, each dog is a wolf. When it comes to an empty stomach, they’re all dogs, looking for a meal from a human who can’t resist a cute face or good behavior.
You’re going to feed your dog anyway. At least make it interesting for him! Put your dog to work for his food through training, kibble hunts, food dispensing toys, and seeking games. Food should be interesting to a dog, not a flash in the pan!
Casey Lomonaco, KPA CTP
Rewarding Behaviors Dog Training