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Dog Training with Existential Food

One of the greatest challenges I face as a dog trainer is finding a way to motivate other people's dogs. Some dogs love food, some love a particular toy and others will do anything for affection. Whatever it takes to motivate a dog, we have to find it if we are to have any hope of keeping training enjoyable for the dog.

To shape and mould a dog's behaviour, we have only four options:



  1. Positive Reinforcement = Adding something to make a behaviour more likely to happen.
  2. Positive Punishment = Adding something to make a behaviour less likely to happen.
  3. Negative Punishment = Removing something to make a behaviour less likely to happen.
  4. Negative Reinforcement = Removing something to make a behaviour more likely to happen.
These days it is pretty commonly accepted that one of the best and most time-effective methods for Positive Reinforcement is with food. With food I can lure the dog, reward the dog and quickly position the dog ready to complete the exercise again.

There are four behaviours that are the key to living happily with any pet dog: sitting, staying in a down, loose leash walking and a bullet proof recall. 
For the average pet dog owner, food is the greatest motivating resource they have available to teach these behaviours. But they waste it...


By feeding a dog from a bowl twice a day on a regular schedule we lose a lot of power in our training. 

When we try to train a dog with treats, we are then just really offering them dessert. 

Sure, dessert is great, but I can go without it. No one needs dessert!


Negative punishment can be a very powerful tool. But only when the removal of something is actually motivating enough to change behaviour. Withholding food from a dog who already has a full belly is not going to be very motivating. What I want is a situation where if the dog doesn’t co-operate or makes a bad decision in training, I can just simply stop the session and remove the dog's access to the food needed to hit his daily calorie intake.

BUT, if the dog is not hungry or if he knows that later on that day he will be given a full bowl of kibble no matter what his behaviour was like leading up to that feeding, then I lose all of the effects of negative punishment. I can not motivate that dog with food. 
The problem to the client is then a loss of value for money in that there is no way I can achieve as much in that time frame. 

Dogs eventually learn that they can out wait a trainer. Eventually I will leave and the owner will give that full bowl of kibble again. Worse still, if the dog is not motivated by a toy or praise then all that is left to shape and mould behaviour is the use of aversives in the form of Positive Punishment when the dog does the wrong thing, and Negative Reinforcement through leash pressure or similar to teach it what I want. Both of these are powerful tools that I will use to proof any behaviour I have taught the dog. However, in the teaching phase, it’s quickest and easiest for everyone if the dog is motivated for food.

I can’t even remember how many times I have asked an owner to simply not feed the dog in the morning before our training session, then when I turn up I see a dog's bowl half full of raw chicken or something similar! How are the "crappy by comparison" dog treats I’m carrying going to motivate that dog? They can’t, and I just find myself hoping and praying that dog likes to chase a ball or play tug. 
But if we are dealing with a complex problem in the house then rewarding with toys may not be appropriate at all. If the dog enjoys possessing its toy, or if it hasn’t yet been taught to return and release it, then I am in a situation where I can only conduct one repetition every 10 minutes, instead of 10 reps every minute. No dog needs a toy to survive but he does need food.

Another common problem is the idea that a dog doesn’t have “food drive” and won't work for food. Assuming the dog is healthy, I can assure you it has food drive. It must eat to live and no healthy dog will starve itself to death. Chances are a dog with “no food drive” has just never been hungry!

I only ever train my own dogs with Existential Food, meaning the normal food they need to survive. My dogs have every opportunity to eat their daily ration of food. But it is done in training and I set no patterns. Sometimes we will have a 5 minute training session where a full days worth of food is dispensed throughout. Other times we may be in a busy place and I recall them to me and I dish out half their kibble right there and then. 


The beauty is that my dogs now think that every command is an opportunity to earn their dinner. They love doing every behaviour they know because maybe it’s that big opportunity they have been waiting for. They live with hope in their heart and it is clear in their confident demeanour and eagerness to please. 
Some of the criticism of training with Existential Food is that some days there isn’t time to set aside for a training session with the dog and so the expectation is that the dog doesn’t eat that day. Nothing could be further from the truth. You have the ability to reward with one piece of kibble as you have the ability to reward with 100 pieces of kibble. 

So if you are short on time, you can jackpot the dog's reward with the whole meal for even the simplest of behaviours. Or if you are working on something new, that same daily ration can be dispensed over three sessions throughout the day. The power is in the dog not knowing which it is going to be: it will always be striving and hoping this is going to be the jackpot.

If you intend to start training with existential food, then keep in mind your criteria in training must be achievable for your dog. If your dog doesn’t know how to roll over, then saying “rollover” and not feeding him when he doesn’t will never result in a dog that rolls over. 

You must still reward for effort and engagement along the way.
If you pair training with Existential Food with a consistent reward marker or clicker, then you have essentially turbo charged your training. The click no longer represents one treat that the dog may or may not be in the mood to eat. It now represents HOPE and the random delivery schedule causes a massive spike in dopamine - your dog's happy hormone.

You can achieve much more in one session than you could in any other way. When you introduce hope into your dog's life you make the idea of missing a command or behaving in a manner contrary to your training much less likely to happen. But best of all, you add power to your negative punishment. When the dog does poorly at whatever you are training, you can just put him away and try again later. Your dog will actively try to please you, your bond will be strengthened and your training will become way more effective.


Pat Stuart is "Top Dog” from the MS Kennels Sydney pack. MS Kennels are able to provide just about every level of dog training service including behaviour consultations and providing fully trained dogs to meet a variety of purposes.  MS Kennels also offer an online video training series teaching average people how to effectively raise a puppy. 

For more details, visit mskennels.com

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