“My Dog Isn’t Food Motivated”

Boy, do I hear this one a lot at the classroom. I hate to be blunt (actually, I don't hate to be blunt. But I...

Casey Lomonaco  |  Sep 22nd 2010


Boy, do I hear this one a lot at the classroom.

I hate to be blunt (actually, I don’t hate to be blunt. But I do try to be polite!), but more often than not the dog is overweight if not obese. On one of the slides Kathy Sdao presented this weekend in her PowerPoint presentation, she gave us the following information:

“In 2002, the American College of Veterinary Internal medicine did a study of 201 dogs – owners judged 28% overweight, experts judged 79% overweight.”

Wow. This is a sobering statistics. I see it very often in my classes, and very rarely have I ever seen a dog at a truly healthy weight refuse food.

The most frequent cause I see of dogs refusing food is certainly unhealthy body weight. But I also see dogs that refuse to eat because they are stressed. For more on why a dog might refuse food, check out an entry from earlier this month My Dog Won’t Eat at Class!.

Kathy brought up a really interesting point that I’d never considered. Sometimes food itself can become a “poisoned” cue to the dog.

In behavior, poisoning equates with ambiguity. The word “sit” for instance, sometimes predicts reinforcement (if the dog complies) or sometimes predicts punishment (if the dog does not comply). Tough to get excited about a situation like that. Even if you had a job that you loved, for how long would you continue to like it if sometimes you showed up on Friday and received a paycheck, but every so often, you showed up on Friday and received an electric shock? Now there is an element of hesitance to your work. You may go because you need the somewhat predictable paycheck, but if another job opportunity presented itself, you’d put in your two weeks notice ASAP.

Can you “poison” food as a reinforcer? While I had not mulled it over previously, Kathy explained to the attendants this weekend that yes, you can, and it’s more common than you think. How would that happen?

Let’s assume that you, like me, adore spicy Thai food. You go to dinner at your favorite Thai restaurant and order your favorite meal. You enjoy your meal immensely, already planning your order for your next visit before you leave. As you walk out, you are satisfied and happy.

You get home and relax on the couch, ready to watch a favorite movie with your dogs and snuggle. Suddenly, your belly begins to churn. You feel clammy, perhaps a little dizzy. You sip a bit of ginger ale, to no avail. Now you are nauseous, and your head hurts. In short, you feel awful. You spend the next 3.7 days in the bathroom, only allowing company if they’re bringing you water or a fresh towel for your forehead.

You may have the flu. Chances are that no matter why you’re ill, you will relate your illness to that fantastic meal. It was delicious, but may it have caused food poisoning?

If you have not had food poisoning yourself, ask someone you know who has – what made them sick? Did they ever eat that food or at that restaurant again? A friend of mine got food poisoning while vacationing in Costa Rica. Not only will she not eat eggs anymore, she warns any travelers to Costa Rica, “be careful what you eat!” Not only has that meal in that restaurant been punished, but any dining in that nation for her! This friend may well have had the flu and not food poisoning at all. Regardless of why she was sick, she associated her illness with what preceded it. We all do it – it’s classical conditioning.

Kathy explained that this happens with treats in training as well. You have a dog that is terrified of the car, the bath tub, the veterinarian’s office, and men. You use a food lure to get your dog to interact with these things – get in the car or bath, go into the vet’s to be poked and prodded, and meet scary men. Before long, the presence of the food gets infected with the fear of all that “scary stuff.” Now food predicts bad things happening to the dog. Therefore, food is a “bad, scary thing.”

This is classical conditioning a negative CER or Conditioned Emotional Response. Boiled down, it equates to: good stuff happens then bad stuff happens. Good stuff predicts bad stuff. Through repetition, good stuff takes on the emotional association of “scary stuff.”

If you reverse the equation, you have a powerful technique for conditioning a positive CER. Scary stuff predicts good stuff is, well, powerful stuff!

If I had poisoned food as a reinforcer, I would probably have to go back to basics with my dog. I’d need to teach her that food predicts good things happening for her (oh, the irony for my positive reinforcement colleagues!). Food would need to become a cue for fun. If this were Mokie, I could begin feeding her as soon as she saw her best doggy friend Leila get out of the car and until Leila reaches the porch, then I would release Mokie to play. Feed, then pull out a stick or tug toy. Feed, then release Mokie to chase a squirrel.

The one thing I learn every day in my work as a behavior consultant is how much I still have to learn. I learned so much from Kathy this weekend, and this lesson on poisoning food as a reinforcement really reminded drove home the sentiment of Bob Bailey’s quote “Pavlov’s always on your shoulder.” Dogs, and we as well, are always learning through classical conditioning.