Dog food as a reinforcer | dog training | puppy eating habits

Can you train a dog with dog food?

Food is a primary reinforcer for dogs. It's a must if they want to survive, so dogs, just like humans, have the instinct to eat and look for food. Therefore, a dog is capable of surviving even if left without an owner who would usually provide food.

However, dogs suffer from the same problems as humans do. Lack of exercise and an infinite amount of food available leads to obesity and lack of interest in food. It simply loses its value.

Food is a powerful reinforcer for dog training and behavior change. It doesn't mean you have to starve your dog so she will obey. It simply means she shouldn't be able to get food anytime she wants.

Don't leave your pup with her food for a whole day. If you give her a bowl of food, take it away a minute or two after she stops eating, even if there is some food left in the bowl. This way your pup will understand that if she doesn't eat her food, it will be taken away. It will help you to establish a clearer feeding schedule and maintain your pup's interest in food. However, this doesn't apply to giving your pup something to chew for longer, as she is supposed to have chewing bones or another type of chewable for a longer time.

Most dog trainers don't give their dogs food simply because it's breakfast or dinner time. We tend to give our dogs (especially puppies) food as a reinforcer during their walks. For example, you take your pup for a walk in the morning. She does her business outside, and she gets some food for this behavior. Later, you call her name, she looks at you, you give her some food. This way your puppy gets food as she is supposed to (for example, during her breakfast time), but also, she learns to work for her food. Sure, it takes a little bit more time for you as an owner to feed your pup like this, but it certainly pays out later, as your dog grows up knowing that she will be reinforced for her good behavior.

It doesn't mean you will have to use food as a reinforcer for the rest of your dog's life. However, using food to encourage acceptable behaviors helps to make these behaviors stronger. We suggest using food as a reinforcer at least until your puppy reaches 6 months of age. It will help to establish and maintain the most important behaviors, such as recall, urinating and defecating outside, basic socialization, etc.

Sure, it's common that sometimes owners don't have enough time to teach their dogs something during their short morning walk. You don't need to give your puppy her food in very small quantities. If you lack the time (or motivation) to teach her in the morning, simply give a handful of kibbles (or another type of food) as a motivator for doing something good. Also, if you forget to bring some food outside, it's not a problem to sometimes give a bowl of food inside. 

How do you stop a puppy from eating too fast?

Although in the previous topic we discussed dogs which tend to lack motivation for food, some pups are always willing to eat whatever you give them. It's natural because it's their instinct. Dog trainers are always happy with a dog who is willing to eat all the time. However, you must be careful with that little piranha, as these dogs which gulp greedily tend to have digestion problems.

If it's your case and you have a puppy that swallows everything like a vacuum cleaner, we advise you to reduce her eating speed. There is a slow-feeder type of dog bowl which has rounder plastic spikes or a "labyrinth" inside, so your pup cannot eat as quickly. Another option is to spread your dog's food on the ground (or on a tray), so it will take up more time for her to eat it. Also, you can use hollow food dispensing dog toys, such as balls or rubber toys. Your dog will not only eat slower, but she will also burn excess energy this way. It's a good choice for a dog, who spends time alone in a crate or a puppy pen, also.