When I get a new puppy, or take on an older dog, I do not put his food in a bowl for him to eat. To me that would be a wasted opportunity; as I am the one who pays for his food and who provides it, he might as well know it comes from me! I hand feed any new dog until he sees me as the source of food. Whilst I am doing this I am also teaching him many new things. I find this works better for me than to give the dog his food for free and then have to ‘make’ him do the things I want him to do (such as push down on his bottom to make him sit). From the start, I lure and reward the behaviours that I require through the dog’s life.

The first lesson he has to learn is to take food from my hand gently. Throughout the dog’s life I must hand feed millions of pieces of food, therefore I do not want to be nipped, or to have to be wary of my dog’s teeth. It would be a real disincentive for me to train my dog if it was painful every time I rewarded him! He must learn that if he is careless with his teeth, I say, ‘Ouch! You are not having it now.’ every time I feel his teeth, he soon learns to take more care not to get his teeth anywhere near my skin. So lesson number one will always be how to take food from my hand.

(Note: I am talking about weaned puppies from around the age of seven weeks. Un-weaned, or very immature puppies sometimes cannot differentiate between your fingers and the food. In this case leave it a couple of days and try again with food that does not stick to your fingers.)

Puppies from around seven weeks and adult dogs learn this very quickly, but be aware, it is always a job in progress – if he ever catches your fingers by mistake let him know about it! Never be brave and pretend it did not matter, nor go to the other extreme and smack him for biting you (that could open a can of worms). He needs to learn that it is his job to be constantly mindful of your hands. Your fingers are very valuable and the dog’s jaw is very powerful. Make him aware of this by simply repeating his early training; say, ‘Ouch! You’re not having it now’ and terminating the game for a couple of minutes. Do this every single time he nips you – no matter how unintentional it was! Once we have that sorted we can safely use food to train the dog.

I have often heard it said that using food does not work. This statement is usually followed by another statement, such as;

  1. I tried food, it does not work.
  2. When you do not have food in your hand, or pocket the dog won’t do it.
  3. I think my dog should do it because he loves me – not for a reward.
  4. My dog won’t work when there is food in sight.
  5. My dog would rather have a toy.
  6. I don’t believe in using bribes.

Let us look at these statements one at a time.

  1. Open your eyes and look around. Dogs that have been purely clicker trained (using food) have won the K.C.C.’s and Cruft’s Obedience Championship! If you have been told using food does not work, it is because the person telling you that does not know how to do it properly!
  2. As above, if taught properly, you do not need to have food up front: just as if you use a lead to teach heelwork, once taught properly the dog will work without the lead in sight.
  3. I do lots of things for my children (and my parents, before they died) because I love them. It does not necessarily mean I enjoy doing them all. Changing nappies, washing, making beds, shopping, decorating, are but a few things that spring to mind. However, I would like to think that when I work my dog he is enjoying himself – not performing some kind of duty to prove his love for me!
  4. Having food in sight does not magically make your dog understand what you want him to do. In fact it can sometimes cause a major distraction. If he is just fixated on the food and cannot do anything, it is simply because your dog has not ‘learnt how to earn’. Proper training will overcome this problem.
  5. All good, high drive working dogs would prefer a toy over food! The food enables a calm mind which is more receptive to learning; and it is easy to control the appetite to enhance learning.
  6. I looked up the word ‘bribe’ in the Bing Dictionary; ‘money or favor given or promised in order to influence the judgment or conduct of a person in a position of trust’. Well I think that is going down the road of anthropomorphism (implying a lot of human emotions). We are talking dog training here – conditioning, luring, rewarding, using food as an incentive – yes all of those. But bribery! Please!

The use of food for training purposes has been a subject that has caused vehement disagreement amongst trainers for over a hundred years. As early as 1909, in his book, ‘Breaking and Training Dogs: Being concise directions for the proper education of dogs ...both for the field and as companions.’ the gundog trainer, Dalziel suggested one should ‘Use as many rewards as possible and few punishments as possible - cooked liver in portable tin- do not keep him waiting for his reward.’

It is interesting to note that in years gone by dogs were ‘broken,’ not trained, although I have noticed recently that some working sheepdogs are still advertised in the farming press as ‘part-trained or fully broken’ and can’t help wondering if this bears any relevance to the way in which the dogs are trained or if it just a good old-fashioned term.

Colonel Konrad Most, a German Service dog trainer, who is revered by many as ‘the founder of modern training’ wrote the eminent book ‘Training Dogs’ which was first published in Germany in 1910. Colonel Most advocates the use of a spiked collar and methods such that, when his work was first translated from German into English, the Publishers found it necessary to include notes such as; "it should be remembered that the author is referring to Service dogs, many of which are savage and if not kept under control could endanger the life of the handler."

- So maybe not quite like our pet dogs that we work in trials these days…

However, Colonel most puts great emphasis on how to develop ‘understanding between man and dog’ and he begins his book with a chapter on ‘The Theory of Training’. His introduction to teaching the recall begins with a lengthy description of how the dog is often punished for the trainer’s mistakes. He states that ... "any signs of the dog not progressing with the recall should at once be regarded as evidence of wrongly directed inducement." And he stresses, "The dog must never, throughout its life, have any - even the slightest - disagreeable experience on coming into physical contact with its master."

Perhaps these days we would call his methods the ‘carrot and stick’ approach.

The two World Wars had a major effect on lifestyle and attitudes over the following decades. Service dogs were selected from the working breeds and the training was tough. War Dogs were revered, and after the Second World War many service dog handlers took up dog training in the private sector:  they became a major influence on the training of dogs in modern society.

William Koehler, who was a well-respected instructor at the War Dog Reception and Training Centre in California during the Second World War, uses compulsion, with severe correction for non-compliance, in all exercises. After the war Koehler trained dogs for films and television and became a very popular pet dog obedience instructor.

In this country other service dog trainers of the era turned their hand to training pet dogs and many of these were amenable to using food rewards. In 1964 William Mealling (a former Senior Instructor, R.A.F. Dog Training School) states that; ‘in all cases we shall try the pleasurable methods first’ … ‘tone of voice, caresses, praise, tit-bits, etc.’

But not all were convinced that food rewards should be used. Notably during the 1970’s Barbara Woodhouse brought dog training into our homes with her popular BBC television series ‘Training Dogs the Woodhouse Way’. Woodhouse disapproved of using food in dog training but would make the odd exception "if really necessary", adding the warning "drop the habit as soon as possible it is a lesson - not a meal!"

Many people are surprised to hear that it was way back in 1951, that the renowned behaviourist, B. F. Skinner recommended using positive reinforcement training with a conditioned reinforcer for dogs (a clicker). He published a paper in which he states, "the new techniques have proved superior to traditional methods of professional animal trainers; they yield more remarkable results with much less effort." He goes on to describe how to teach a dog to close a cupboard door using ‘clicker training’ and states that even a beginner can train a dog to do this in less than five minutes.

John Holmes, a British trainer well known for his film work, has contributed much to dog training in this country, he wrote many excellent books and articles over a long period of time which covered aspects of training dogs for a range of purposes. Amongst his most popular are; ‘Obedient Dogs: and how To Have One (1954),The Family Dog: Its Choice and Training’ (1962), The Obedient Dog - Training For Obedience Classesand Working Trials’ (1975),

andThe Farmer’s Dog (1963).’In 1954 Holmes informed us that, "nearly all circus and stage dogs are trained using food."

However, this was not generally utilised in the world of dogs where compulsion training prevailed even though the knowledge was there.

In 1964, Whitney states that the "forced method is not the only way to train a dog". He uses reward based training and demonstrates rapid learning times. However, this type of book seemed to be considered as ‘cranky’ and never gained much popularity.

It is only now, in the 21st century that ‘clicker training’ is finally becoming popular. More and more people are using it - especially for competition purposes,  although as we have seen, it is certainly not new! Over the coming months I will be looking at how to use food in training to get the results you want from your dog.

Anne Bussey