The Joy of Training With Food

Thank you to Debbie Jacobs, who pointed out that many training videos do not include the moment the trainer feeds her dog, and that we need to see that. 

Training your dog with food is not only effective. It’s also fun. Do it for a while and your dog may start preferring his training sessions to his meals, even if it’s the same food. You will learn things too, and will enjoy seeing your dog get enthusiastic and attentive.

People who are new to it can profit from seeing what training with food looks like, so I’ve put together a video. I am most definitely an amateur, but I don’t mind showing my imperfect training. I’m not trying to model the perfect use of food delivery–I don’t have that level of skill. But I can give people an idea of what a high rate of reinforcement looks like and let them see what a good time the dogs are having. Hopefully, it will help people who are newer to the game than I am.

It seems to be human nature to be a little cheap with the food at first, so this is another reason for the video. I’m showing high rates of reinforcement in the clips. Most people are surprised at first by how much food we use. But if you are going to do it, do it right. Using a high rate of reinforcement makes it fun, helps keep your dog’s interest, and builds a strong behavior.

Some people talk like using food and building a good relationship are mutually exclusive. But the opposite is true. Have you ever heard a new mom say, “I don’t want to nurse my baby because I don’t want her to associate me with food and comfort. I want her to love me for me!”? Has your grandmother ever said, “I was going to make you some cookies but I didn’t want that to get in the way of our relationship”? Being the magical source of all sorts of good food for your dogs doesn’t hurt your relationship at all. Likewise, your dog’s being a source of comfort when the human world is harsh for you doesn’t cheapen your love for her.

I know, I know. The analogies with the new mom and grandmother are flawed. Those are classical associations and in the case of our dogs, we are talking about training with food. Making food contingent on behavior. Please give me a pass on that for now; I’ll address it in a future post. Besides, the net effect of using lots of food gets you the classical association anyway.

Why Train at All?

Poster: "Don't let anyone tell you that working on good mechanical skills is making yoerself (or your dog) into a robot. Working up good mechanical skills is an act of love.When I first started training my dog (Summer was the first) it was because of behavior problems. Then I found out we both enjoyed it. So we kept on. My next purpose for training was to compete. We competed and titled in obedience, rally obedience, and our favorite, agility.

Zani needed minimal training to fit into my household. She is the proverbial “easy” dog. But she turned out to be a natural agility dog so we did a lot of that. Clara did need training to fit into the household, and even more help to be comfortable in the world.

Today, with my dogs at ages 11, 8, and 5, we don’t have any big problems getting along at home. I’ve trained them alternative behaviors to things that just don’t work well in human environments. Things like peeing on any available absorbent surface, chewing anything attractive, and hurling themselves at me. In turn, they’ve taught me their preferences and the way they like to do things.

What’s the main reason we train now? Because it enriches my dogs’ lives and it’s fun for all of us. Training with food and working together to problem-solve help create a great bond, and it’s a game the dogs can never lose. We all learn so much! I train things like tricks, agility behaviors, and safety behaviors. For instance, right now I am working on everyone’s “down at a distance” using a hand signal. Oh, and handling! Any money I can put in that particular bank means less stressful vet visits for my dear girls.

What Training with Food Looks Like

I compiled a short video that comprises six clips where I am training with food. A lot of food. Each behavior gets at least one treat. Sometimes I use a second behavior (such as a hand target) as a release and I treat for that too. In some cases when I am capturing a behavior for the first time, or working a little duration, I am giving multiple, “rapid-fired” treats. So in that case, one behavior gets many treats!

You will see me both tossing treats to “re-set” the dog for the next behavior and treating in position. Almost all the videos are “headless trainer” vids, but that’s OK with me. I want you to be able to see the dog performing behaviors and eating.

By the way, I am using kibble in most of the clips, but if you are new to this, you should definitely use something more exciting. Be generous. My dogs will work happily for kibble now because over years they have come to love the games. And they don’t always get kibble. They also get things like chicken breast, roast, moist dog food roll, canned cat food, dehydrated raw food, and other exciting stuff.

A small black and tan dog is delicately accepting a treat from a woman's hand while training with food.

I appreciate Zani’s gentleness when I hand her a treat!

The behaviors in the movie are, in order:

  • Zani crossing her paws in response to a hand signal cue. On the latter reps, I am giving her multiple treats while she stays in position.
  • Clara working on one of her rehabilitation exercises for hind end strength. In the video, I am feeding in position. I’m giving lots of treats because she is doing duration and this is a hard behavior. After this session, I started treating after the behavior, since it’s a bit awkward for her to eat when she is stretched up vertically.
  • Summer doing a nose-to-hand target. This was after I had cleaned up the results of sloppy training on my part. My rate of reinforcement in these clips was 27 reps per minute. (Not all repetitions are shown.) That’s 27 cues, 27 behaviors, and 27 food reinforcers per minute. Pretty good for me. I’m not usually that fast, and of course, there are tons of variables. (One thing speeding things up is that Summer rarely chews small pieces of food!) If you’d like to see an exercise for rate of reinforcement and speedy treat delivery, check out this video from Yvette Van Veen. 
  • An old video of Zani drilling what I call “Level One Breakfast” from Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. In this case, we were practicing sits, downs, and hand targets.
  • Summer filing down her front toenails on a scratch board. If you want to learn about this and other ways to make nail trimming a pleasant experience for your dog, visit the Facebook group Nail Maintenance for Dogs.
  • Clara’s very first try at “two on, two off” agility behavior on an elevated board. (Note: many people teach this with a nose target on the ground but I don’t include that. I don’t plan to do agility with her and was just experimenting. ) When she gets in the correct position, I don’t mark, but just start feeding, feeding, and feeding in position.

Link to my video for email subscribers.

The one thing missing from the above video is a magnitude reinforcer: a large extended reinforcement period. That’s a great consequence for something the dog put real effort into. I do them mainly after agility runs, or when my dogs do something unexpectedly impressive in real life. That happened just the other day when I cued Zani to drop a stinky dead snake and come to me…and she did! Sadly, there was no camera running while I thanked her and showered her with all the goodies I had.

Luckily, my friend Marge Rogers has a great video of Rounder, her Rhodesian Ridgeback, practicing his Reliable Recall (from Leslie Nelson’s great DVD). Note in particular what is happening at 0:54 – 1:02. After she successfully calls him away from a yummy plate of food, he gets a constant stream of fabulous food and praise. If you don’t think 8 seconds is a long time for that–try it sometime!

Link to Marge’s video for email subscribers.

Other Reinforcers

Of course, there are other fabulous reinforcers. I use tugging, playing ball, sniffing, personal play, find-it games, and playing in water with my dogs. All these are great relationship builders too. I talk to and praise my dogs all the time, and have successfully used praise to shape behaviors with them. But you know what? Praise would be completely empty if we didn’t have a bond already. It only gains value after we are connected.

So Don’t Forget the Food!

Training with food builds your bond with your dog. It’s not mechanistic or objectifying. Working up good mechanical skills is an act of love, and so is using a great reinforcer. These will help you communicate clearly with your dog. And the observation skills you will gain as you improve as a trainer will help you learn what your dog is saying to you!

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

Share Button

Easy tweets! (They include a link to this post)

  • Developing good training mechanics is an act of love.

Don’t Be Callous: How Punishment Can Go Wrong

This post includes discussion of animal experimentation from the 1950s and 1960s using shock. It is unpleasant to contemplate. But to me, it makes it even worse that the knowledge gained by those studies is not widely known. Studying that literature gives one a window on how punishment works. I hope you will read on.

The studies I cite are all included in current learning theory textbooks, and my descriptions are in accord with the textbooks’ conclusions. The results are different from the common assumptions about punishment. 

Graph shows typical response to mild-to-moderate punishment. X axis represents sessions over time. Y axis is the suppression ratio. There is a drop in the behavior immediately after the aversive is applied, but the behavior gradually returns to its former level.

This is a typical response to mild-to-moderate punishment. The X-axis represents sessions over time. The Y-axis is the average suppression ratio. The shape of the graph roughly correlates to  the frequency of the behavior.

I’ve written a lot about making humane choices in training and about the fallout that accompanies aversive methods. But there are other problems with the use of aversives besides the immediate fact of hurting, scaring, or bothering your dog. It turns out that using positive punishment is tricky.

In the term positive punishment, positive doesn’t mean “good” or “upbeat.” In learning theory usage it means the type of punishment in which something is added and a behavior decreases. The added thing is something the animal wants to avoid. If every time your dog sat you shocked her, played a painfully loud noise, or threw something at her, your dog would likely not sit as often.  Those things I mentioned would act as “aversive stimuli.” If the dog sat less after that, then punishment would have occurred.

There is another type of punishment called negative punishment. It consists of removing something the dog wants when they do something undesirable. I’m not discussing that type of punishment in this post. For the rest of the post, when I refer to punishment, I am referring to positive punishment.

The Punishment Callus

Some trainers and behavior professionals warn about something called the punishment callus. A punishment callus is not a physical callus. It is one name for the way that animals (including humans) can develop a tolerance for an aversive stimulus. When that tolerance is developed, that stimulus does not decrease behavior. It is not an effective punisher. The animal has become desensitized to punishment.

This is not just a piece of folklore. It has been demonstrated repeatedly in studies, and it happens way more often than we realize in real life. I’m going to describe some of the research.

Reinforcement First

The first thing that happens in most punishment experiments is that the animal is taught a behavior using positive reinforcement. The pigeon learns to peck a disk to get some grain. The rat learns to press a lever or run down a chute to get food. There will be dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of repetitions. Then, after the behavior is strong, the researchers introduce punishment. This is usually in the form of shock. The shock is generally contingent on the animal touching the food or performing the behavior that gets access to the food.

At first glance, this seems weird, not to mention wildly unfair. Why would they be starting off a punishment study with reinforcement? Then why would they punish the same behavior?

Think about it a little and it makes sense. You can’t use punishment if you don’t have a behavior to punish. Reinforcement is what makes behaviors robust. You can’t measure the effects of unpleasant stimuli on a behavior unless you have a strong, consistent behavior to begin with.

In some studies, they cease the reinforcement after the punishment starts. In others, the reinforcement continues. In these experiments, the animals and birds get shocked for trying to get their food in the same way they learned to get it through many repetitions of positive reinforcement.

But this is not at all unique to lab experiments. A hard lesson here is that we do the same thing when we set out to punish a behavior. Animals behave because they get something of value (or are able to escape something icky). The behavior that the dog is performing that annoys us is there because it has been reinforced. It didn’t just appear out of the blue. So if we start to punish it, the animal is going to go through the same experience that the lab animals did. “Wait! This used to get me good stuff. Now something bad happens!” And punishment and reinforcement may happen together in real life, just as in some of the studies.

How We Imagine Punishment to Work

I think most of us have an image of punishment that goes something like this:

The dog has developed a behavior we find annoying. Let’s say he’s knocking over the trash can and going through the trash. The next time Fido does that, we catch him in the act. We sternly tell him, “No! Bad dog!” Or we hit him or throw something.(I hope it’s obvious I’m not recommending this.) The next time he does it, we do the same thing. In our minds, we have addressed the problem. In our mental image, the dog doesn’t do it anymore.

But. It. Doesn’t. Work. That. Way.

Real life and science agree in this. It’s much harder than that to get rid of a reinforced behavior.

Punishment Intensity

Many studies show that the effectiveness of a punishing stimulus correlates to its intensity (Boe and Church 1967).   The higher the intensity, the more the behavior decreases. Very high-intensity punishment correlates to long-term suppression.

Skinner was one of the first to discover that low-intensity punishment was ineffective. He taught rats to press a bar to get food. Then he discontinued the food and started to slap the rats’ paws when they pressed the bar. For about a day, the rats whose paws got slapped pressed the bar less than a control group. Then they caught up. Even though they were getting slapped, they pressed the bar just as often as the control rats (Skinner 1938). Other early punishment studies also used mild punishment, and for a while, it was assumed that all effects of punishment were very temporary (Skinner 1953). This was determined to be incorrect in later studies with higher intensity aversives.

Dog owners who try to use low-level punishment are faced with an immediate problem. Ironically, the problem is born out of a desire to be kind. Many people do not feel comfortable doing anything to hurt or startle their dogs, but these are the methods they have been told to use. So they figure that they should start with a very low-intensity action. They’ll yell just loud enough to get the dog to stop. They’ll jerk the dog’s collar just enough to interrupt the pulling on leash. They’ll set the shock collar to the lowest setting.

But if a behavior is valuable enough to a dog (i.e., it gets reliably reinforced), a mild punishment will barely put a dent in it. It may interrupt the behavior at the moment and suppress it for a short time, and people are fooled into thinking it will continue to be effective. But it almost certainly won’t.

So the next thing the humans do when the dog performs the behavior is to raise the level of the punishment a bit. They yell louder, jerk harder, or turn up the dial on the shock collar.

Lather, rinse, repeat. If this pattern continues, the humans are successfully desensitizing their dogs to punishment. The desensitization can continue up to extremely high levels of punishment. That is the punishment callus, and it has been excruciatingly well documented in the literature.

Miller’s Rats

In one study (Miller 1960), hungry rats were trained to run down a walled alleyway to get a moist pellet of food at the other end. The rats repeated this behavior many times as they got acclimated to the setup. Each rat’s speed of running down the alley was recorded as they gained fluency. The behavior of running down the alley was reinforced by access to food. This continued (without punishment) until the rats were determined to have reached their maximum speed.

A shock mechanism was then initiated so the rats’ feet would get shocked when they touched the moist food. The rats were divided into two groups. They were referred to as the Gradual group and the Sudden group, indicating the way the shock was introduced. The Gradual group started with a shock of 125 Volts, which caused virtually no change in behavior. The shock was raised in each subsequent session. The rats’ speed slowed down somewhat each time the shock was raised. Then it recovered and leveled off as they got accustomed to the new intensity. The shock was raised through nine increments up to 335 Volts.

The rats in the Sudden group didn’t experience the gradual shocks. Their first introduction to the shock was at 335 Volts. Their movement down the alley slowed drastically. Often they would not touch the food.

In the last 140 trials (5 trials each for 28 rats total) the results were telling. Out of 70 trials at 335 Volts for the rats in the Gradual group, only 3 trials resulted in the rat not going all the way to the food. In the Sudden group at the same voltage, 43 trials, more than half, resulted in the rat not going all the way to the food.

To repeat: These two groups of rats responded differently to shocks of the same high voltage due to how the shock was introduced.

Now take careful note of the differences in their behavior:

The [subjects] in the Gradual group flinched and sometimes squealed but remained at the goal and continued to eat. Those in the Sudden group seemed much more disturbed, lurching violently back, running away and crouching a distance from the goal (Miller 1960).

There’s the clincher. At 335 Volts, some rats were still approaching the food and eating while getting shocked. In other words, those behaviors were not effectively punished. For the other rats, the behaviors were definitely punished–and the rats were traumatized.

So there you have it. Two of the most common outcomes of using punishment are:

  • a spiral of ever-increasing punishment intensity that the animal learns to tolerate; or
  • a shut-down animal.

This information has been available for 50 years. Yet aversive techniques are still casually recommended to pet owners with no education in learning theory, no exposure to the mechanical skills involved, and most important, no clue of the harm to the animal.

Punishment meme

The Resilience of Behavior

One of the things I finally “got” about punishment as I studied the graphs in these studies is that complete cessation of a behavior is rare. Again, our mental image of the results of punishment is incorrect. In the Miller experiment, the traumatized rats in the Sudden group did sometimes approach and eat the food despite intense punishment. The rats in the Gradual group consistently did so.

The rats in the Gradual group correspond to dogs who are trained with gradually increasing punishment. They acclimate and the behavior continues. They get a punishment callus. The rats in the Sudden group probably resemble the heavily punished dogs I describe in my post Shut-Down Dogs, Part 2. 

One more thing about the graphs. When punishment is initiated or taken to a higher level, there is an immediate drop-off of behavior. It’s usually of short duration. The rate of behavior generally rises back up again.  This is what I modeled in the diagram above. You can see a bunch of these graphs in the Azrin study linked below.

Increasing the punishment intensity seems to have the same general effect as the initial addition of punishment. In both instances, the new punishment intensity produces a large suppression at the moment of changeover, with substantial recovery after continued exposure to this new intensity. Only at severe intensities of punishment has further increase failed to produce an abrupt decrease in responding (Azrin 1960).

One of the tragedies of this pattern in dog training is that the drop-off causes the human to believe the punishment is working. The human’s act of raising the level of the punishment is reinforced.

The deliberate use of positive punishment as a training method is already ruled out of consideration for most positive reinforcement-based trainers. This is because of humane concerns and its known fallout. But I believe it is also important for us to know how difficult it would be to use effectively and that it does not work the way most of us imagine it to. We can see desensitization to punishment all around us once we learn of its existence.  My takeaway from the studies is how vastly superior and straightforward it is to build behavior in our pets than to try to squash it down.

Note: Please don’t quote this article to claim “punishment doesn’t work.” High-intensity punishment does work. But it has unacceptable side effects that are destructive of our dogs’ happiness and wellbeing, not to mention their bonds with us.


Azrin, Nathan H. (1960). Effects of punishment intensity during variable‐interval reinforcement. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 3(2), 123-142.

Boe, E. E., & Church, R. M. (1967). Permanent effects of punishment during extinction. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 63(3), 486-492.

Miller, Neal E. (1960). Learning resistance to pain and fear: Effects of overlearning, exposure, and rewarded exposure in context. Journal of Experimental Psychology 60(3), 137-145.

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: an experimental analysis. Appleton-Century. New York.

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. Simon and Schuster.

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

Share Button

Easy tweets! (They include a link to this post)

  • What's a punishment callus and why do we need to know?
  • Why is using light punishment ineffective in the long run?

Being Open-Minded About Training

Has anyone ever accused you of being “closed-minded” because you base your training on positive reinforcement?

It’s pretty common. Some people come right out and say it. Others imply it by going on about their own open-mindedness. Here is a typical comment in that vein from a discussion group. The topic was solving a specific behavior problem.

I am not here for confrontation but I am against “one size fits all.” I go with what gets the best results. Everyone is entitled to an opinion and every dog is different. I stick to the techniques that help my dog but I’m open-minded and always open to learn.

This can sound attractive and reasonable, especially if you grew up in California in the 1970s as I did. I grew up in a culture that valued open-mindedness and I was explicitly taught it as part of a moral code. “Don’t be critical.” “Learn about other people and other ways of doing things.” “Don’t judge.” (See the photo at the bottom of this post for my 1970s credentials.)

I may have added some nuance to that value over the years, especially the “don’t judge” part. I came to believe that being open-minded didn’t mean automatically accepting every thought and idea that came my way.  Because questioning statements and beliefs, especially your own, is open-minded too.

Ad Hominem

The first thing to realize about the quote above is that it is an ad hominem response. It’s all about the personal qualities of the writer and by implication, those who might argue against her. Even with all that nice language about being open to learning and everyone being entitled to an opinion. Did you notice something? It doesn’t address the behavior problem or a training method to solve it. Whoosh! Now we are talking about who’s open-minded and who’s not.

Implying that your opponent is closed-minded is an ad hominem attack and an attempt to silence. The writer can say all day long that she’s not there to be confrontational. I believe she truly may not want an argument–she’s doing her best to squelch one before it starts! The appeal to open-mindedness, when successful, can pre-empt any argument that comes against one. And it can be effective. What do you say to someone who ignores the substance of what you say and dismisses you as closed-minded? I’ll get to that below.

What Is Open-Mindedness Really?

OK, the next part is where some might say, “Don’t be so open-minded your brain falls out.” Except that is also ad hominem. It implies that there are limits to open-mindedness as a virtue, but it doesn’t specify them. It’s just a return insult. We can do better than that.

The thing is, being open-minded doesn’t mean you can’t make judgments. It means being willing to consider all the evidence. Here are some definitions:

Having or showing a mind receptive to new ideas or arguments.


Willing to consider different ideas or opinions.

Oxford Dictionaries:

Willing to consider new ideas; unprejudiced.

None of these implies that open-mindedness means avoiding coming to conclusions about evidence. None precludes judging something to be harmful or unnecessary.

Crossing Over

For many people, it required an extremely open mind to come to understand how positive reinforcement-based training worked and learn to see dog body language.1)Others never adopted force methods, and I want to throw in a “Good job!” to them.


Meme openmindedness

Being open-minded means being open to learning about cognitive fallacies and cultural programming. Being open-minded means being willing to examine one’s own assumptions. It means being willing to open one’s perceptions to see fallout and to leave old methods behind. It means living with the cognitive/emotional dissonance that precedes changing one’s beliefs. It means being open to the possibility that something formerly taken for granted is false.

Being open-minded about the possibility that we were wrong about how best to train our dogs is hard and can hurt.

A friend who made some painful realizations when crossing over from training with aversives wrote this:

I think a big part of allowing yourself to believe there might be a better way of doing things is coming to terms with the fact that you aren’t doing things the best way already. I think that’s a stickler for a lot of people. People are trying to do the best for their dogs, and it’s hard to acknowledge that they might actually be doing the dog harm.

Why This Post?

I’ve got two reasons. First, I want to offer a possible response to being accused of closed-mindedness.

Most of us who spend any time in Internet discussion groups have come to recognize an ad hominem retort. Something like, “Why would I listen to you? Your videos suck!” is an obvious personal attack and irrelevant to a discussion about ideas or methods (even if the videos do suck). A remark like that could also get the writer thrown out of a lot of groups that have a zero-tolerance policy for personal attacks. But a quote like I opened with at the beginning of this post would rarely get flagged as inappropriate. It usually passes under the radar when a writer claims open-mindedness and implies that her opponents in argument lack that quality. I think this is because open-mindedness seems relevant to discussion. It is a seductive argument. We don’t realize that since it’s a character trait, throwing it in it leads attention away from the actual argument.

Here’s a sample response to such an accusation.

  • A: You are closed-minded; there are lots of good methods out there. Every dog is different.
  • B: There certainly are a lot of methods, so let’s talk about them. We can do that better without bringing in individual character traits.

The idea is to politely turn away from character judgments and return to the original discussion. I would not repeat the term “open-minded” or “closed-minded” back. Leave those behind. Whatever you do, don’t get sucked into an, “I’m more open-minded than you are” contest.

I don’t fool myself that Person A is going to get persuaded to open her mind to the things we might want her to. Not from this one discussion. For crossover trainers, our own journeys can tell us that. That kind of change can be terrifically hard. We need to remember how it was for us and have empathy for that. But the argument is not pointless. Remember that the lurkers, the folks in the background who may be on the fence, are always there watching. They will respond to the things we say about positive reinforcement training, to our coolness in the face of unfair criticism, and to our patience.

And that brings me to the second reason for this post. Professional trainers who practice positive reinforcement-based methods are beleaguered. I watch it happening to you. You are still a minority in the training world. Time and time again you have to pick up the pieces after a force-based method has hurt a dog. You deal with both dogs and people who are hurting, confused, and sometimes desperate. You often suffer from compassion fatigue. And then you get on Facebook for a little R&R and there is someone telling you how closed-minded you are.

This is my shout-out to you. Those insults that people hurl are wrong. You are not only open-minded: you are also willing to review the evidence and make decisions. You educate yourselves. You are willing to admit your mistakes. You advocate for the dogs.

Thank you.

My 1970s California Credentials

Offering my credentials as a California child of the 70s, with my dad, Norman, and sister Gail.

Offering my credentials as a California child of the 70s, with my dad, Norman, and sister Gail.

Shout-out to reader Neil Joinson who politely pointed out that the preferred term is “closed-minded” rather than “close-minded.” I have edited the article and graphic accordingly. Thanks, Neil!

Related Posts & Pages



© Eileen Anderson 2016

Share Button

Notes   [ + ]

1.Others never adopted force methods, and I want to throw in a “Good job!” to them.