"Don’t give your dog human food or they’ll always expect it"
Well, here I am, officially going on record as saying it: "What a load of rubbish."
Yep, there is absolutely no reason why you cannot use human food to reward your dog. In fact, there is also no reason why you can’t feed them off your plate either... provided that you have decent foundation training in place around food, they are not going to learn to beg.
Athena (and all of my dogs actually) is always asked to settle on a bed (or a sofa) while we eat. "Settle" is a fantastically useful skill that G&S encourage all owners to teach. It's actually one that is included in all our training support programmes since it comes in so useful. This keeps her out of the way and makes sure she is polite and chilled while food is around. However, once we are finished she’s often given a few “tidbits” as we’re clearing up. From chips to a piece of meat to empty yoghurt pots. Does she always expect this to happen? No. Does she beg for food? No. She understands that if she stays settled on a bed when food is around, nice stuff occasionally happens – but not always.
As for using human food as a reward for training, well for 90% of food-motivated dogs, I challenge you to find a higher value reward. When it comes to rewards, it’s the individual dog that decides what is reinforcing. Whether that be it food, praise, toys, sniffing or anything else. This means that when it comes to R+ training, as trainers we spend a lot of time assessing what the dog finds most rewarding in different situations and yes, depending on where your dog is, they will find different things more or less reinforcing.
Let’s take little Lizzi as an example;
At home, her biggest reward is a flirt pole or a Tug-E-Nuff. If she suspects one is in play, she’ll lie next to where she thinks it is and stare at me in expectation. She’ll take food, but she’s more driven and responsive if she’s working for a chase game with a Tug-E-Nuff. Her hunter's brain is on and ready to chase.
Out and about, however, she’s far more motivated for high-value food. Tinned hot dog is her favourite, but cheese and chicken are high up her list too. She’ll still work for Tug-E-Nuff, but she’s less focused on it.
Now, I do Scentwork with Lizzi, not competitively, but to keep her mentally enriched and not causing me Tiny Chaos. She searches for Cloves and Truffle Oil and has been taught to lie down where she thinks she has found the scent. It’s exactly the same as police dogs when they search for drugs, guns or money. Her primary reward for this is tinned hotdog sausage, not the Tug-E-Nuff. I’ve played with several rewards, from dried liver to cheese to fishy dog treats, but the one she flea hops the most in excitement for is hot dog. So that is what we use. Had I used a lower value reward, like fishy dog treats or some dried kibble, she would be less motivated to work and search and I would have spent a lot longer getting her to the level she is currently at.
The Tiny Terror herself, post scentwork exhaustion
Do low-value rewards have their place? Absolutely. For most behaviours and training, I use the medium to lower value rewards, but when it comes to things like recall, loose lead walking, Scentwork, or the dreaded reactivity training – higher value rewards are needed as you are competing with the distractions of the Big Wide World, or working on changing underlying emotions (usually changing a fear to neutrality) and often high value, human foods, have a bigger impact than a lower value reward.
And to those who say that your dog should work just to please you or for praise – would you go to work for a hearty pat on the back and thanks from your boss? I doubt it. But that’s a discussion for another day!