Saturday, April 17, 2010

Lessons in dog training: Working for food

I'm a general fan of Jon Katz's basic training philosophy: Research as many dog training methods as you can find information on, then decide for yourself what will work for you and your dog. As he writes in Katz on Dogs, "Each dog and each owner is different. What matters is what works for you and the dog you live with." I mentioned this philosophy in my previous post about my decision to crate train Miyagi. Katz explains that "We need a patched-together training method that understands the dog's nature and our own..."
One thing I've done research on is how feeding can make or break your relationship with your dog. This is actually a pretty huge area that is often intertwined with all areas of training. For example, many say hand feeding is the best way to quickly bond with your dog. An easy way to help a dog learn his or her name is to repeat it while the dog is eating. Even handing out kibble in exchange for good behavior (thus cutting down on overfeeding by cutting out treats) is often encouraged.
For Miyagi, all of these things are working. But one that I was highly skeptical of was the idea of making a dog work for his food. It seemed a little cruel to me, but I was having trouble keeping my high-energy pup entertained. Then I realized I was again putting my human emotions on my dog. Because I thought withholding food until satisfactory work was accomplished seemed cruel, I assumed I was hurting Miyagi by doing just that.
But dogs have always worked for their food, in fact many dogs are happier to solve a puzzle in order to partake of breakfast than to have it plopped in front of them (Miyagi often didn't finish his food because he got bored with it).
Having a dog expend energy mentally can often help him be calmer overall. So with Miyagi, I began feeding him by stuffing some of his kibble into a Kong ball.

The rest I fed to him during training sessions. Because of this, his training has also improved as he became more willing to work for a treat when he hasn't already stuffed himself with breakfast or dinner. Here's a video of Miyagi eating dinner recently.

Of course, Miyagi didn't quite get it at first. But now it takes him less than 2 minutes to pull all of his kibble out. This morning I stuffed the openings with peanut butter to challenge him more. It's been fun to see his mind click and suddenly figure out just what to do.


  1. Only you two would think of something like that. I will admit that was pretty funny and when I get a dog I will enjoy teasing him just as much.

  2. It's actually not about teasing him so much as it is getting him to use his brain a little bit. This fulfills his basic instincts more and keeps him calmer overall.