Side Effects May Include

You know what I really, really love?

I love the side effect profile of using food to train your dog.

Okay, so this is less “training” and more “pre-washing.”

I don’t feel like writing a post against the various upsurges of fear-mongering and misplaced antipathy toward training with food. There are lots of excellent articles by more qualified people than I that undo those claims. I also grow tired and sad from reading too many posts about the fallout of aversives. It’s important information, for sure, and I keep myself educated and up to date on it. But today, I want to put something happy out into the world.

To that end, I’m going to tell you about a few ways that Nala’s behavior has changed recently even when I don’t have a speck of food on my body–purely because Pavlov has been on my shoulder during our training sessions, and that carries over. I’ll probably do this periodically, since I have an ongoing fascination with how the training that I do with Nala affects her pleasures, her interests, and her uncued behavior.

Silly Games for Better Obedience

As I’ve discussed before, we’ve done a lot of work on Nala’s space bubble. We’ve mostly played operant conditioning based games, as Nala seems most comfortable when she gets to dictate how close she gets, and happiest when she gets to move around as she pleases. I’ve also incorporated a lot of backing up when she moves toward me into our personal play, so that Nala has decided that moving toward me, bouncing and bowing and shoving a toy at me, is excellent fun. But a lot of the work we’ve done in this area has used food–delicious, cheesy food.

Recently, I revisited “front,” a behavior we do in Rally obedience. For those unfamiliar with Rally or traditional obedience, this means that the dog comes and sits, centered, in front of the handler. She should be close enough for the handler to reach out and touch her, but Nala would typically rock back into a sit at the edge of arm’s length.

Even though we haven’t actually worked on them, Nala’s fronts are close enough now–she comes and sits happily right at the edge of my toes. Problem solved!

Increased Confidence Through Chicken

Nala can be kind of spooky about novel objects. She startles at weirdly shaped rocks. She once nearly bolted over a big fallen tree. And when fallen branches blocked our path during hikes, she used to crawl under them rather than dare touch them in any way.

At some point, I started to teach her to put her paws up on, and then to clamber up and perch upon, benches, tables, and tree stumps that we encountered out in the world. These days, she leaps confidently over obstacles and never avoids the jump in Rally. She also amuses herself–and me–by clambering up into chairs and sitting there like a person. And now, there’s just one less category of things in the world she’s afraid of–anything that she can attempt to climb onto just isn’t that bad–which has probably contributed to her increased confidence outside overall.

I Chin Rest Because I Love

Around six weeks ago, I introduced a chin rest behavior to Nala. We don’t work on it more than a few times a week.

The behavior itself is looking great. If I’m sitting down and I proffer my hand in chin rest position, she presses her chin into it and holds it there, looking into my eyes, until I release her. That’s not very surprising. Food is great for training behaviors, and I’m decently competent at following good instructions.

claimed for cuddles and country
“This hand is mine now.”

What is surprising is that learning this trick has helped Nala come up with new ways to show me that she loves me. If I’m sitting on the couch, she might come and press her chin into my knee to solicit petting. When I’m petting her, she moves her head around so that she can press her chin and muzzle into my hand, frequently trapping my hand against the couch or bed to maintain that pressure. And she’s more comfortable, overall, with having her face handled now–I’ve been meaning to start doing the requisite training for handling and brushing Nala’s teeth forever, and this trick has unexpectedly turned out to be a great first step.

And all of this for a behavior I almost decided not to teach, because I wasn’t sure that it would be useful for us. Who knew?

Food Games for Better Toy Play

Months and months ago, I took Denise Fenzi’s Relationship Building through Play class at FDSA. In one of the lectures for that class, she talked about ways to play tug with your dog that are gentle on both of your bodies–not jerking the dog’s head up and down and slamming her feet into the ground; not being given whiplash by your big, strong dog when she thrashes the toy.

One suggestion she offers for pairs like Nala and I is to tug with your dog between your legs. Here’s a video of Denise doing some training with one of her dogs, Raika, in that position. Isn’t Raika cute?

It probably won’t surprise any of you that Nala was not initially pleased with this idea. She didn’t want to come between my legs at all, and tugging definitely wasn’t worth the discomfort of being that close to me while I was standing, and partially restrained by my legs.

Enter food! For the past few weeks, I’ve taught that position with food as a trick. I’d run away from Nala, stop, drop food between my feet, then throw a treat in front of me. Then I escalated–no food lure, give a treat in position, toss a treat to release. I began to build duration by rapid-firing lots of treats in position, and drive for the position by playing hard to get, so that Nala had to pursue me quickly and push into place to get her jackpot of treats.

Then, last night, when Nala and I were playing–and, again, not a speck of food on me–I let her win her toy, then darted away from her and paused. And she followed me, shoved her head through my legs, and shoved her toy into my hands. She tugged gleefully, and Denise is right–tugging this way is much easier on my back! And I can’t tell you how happy it made me to see this dog playing with this way–so happy, so engaged, so eager to share her precious, weird smelling toy.

Now I have a cute trick if we ever take up freestyle, as well as a great tool for keeping Nala close to me in busy places, for training and refining some positions, and for tugging in a way that doesn’t risk injury to my back or her neck. And Nala finds the position comfortable and fun enough to seek it even without the promise of food–I can begin to use a wide variety of reinforcers to maintain this behavior.

What am I trying to say?

If you’ve spent any time in dog-related circles on the internet, you’ll have seen people’s hackles go up about using treats, and being generous with them. Sure, your dog does the behavior, but only when you have treats in your hand, or on your person! Training with treats might get behaviors, but it doesn’t get a dog who cares about you–she’s just there for the food!

To all of that, I say: bollocks.

Without putting any real effort into reducing reinforcers or getting food off of my body, Nala’s behavior outside of formal sessions has nevertheless, with all of these very new behaviors, begun to change. She’s developing a strong positive conditioned emotional response for some really desirable things–coming close to me, having my hands on and around her face, and playing the kinds of sweet games together that will make it possible, one day, for me to do things with her where I can’t have food on my person–like get her Canine Good Citizen certificate, or compete in Rally trials. She is more and more comfortable and happy just being close to me, and doing things with me. And all because I have not been afraid to be very, very generous in the early stages of training some inconsequential seeming behaviors. Paradoxically, using a lot of food to train Nala is already making us less dependent on it, as the side effects of these new things we have been working on clearly show–using food has helped Nala learn to genuinely enjoy these behaviors, thanks to the wonders of classical conditioning.

And of course, I find it genuinely cool to see how Nala’s fascinating brain re-interprets and transforms what I teach her. What can I say? I love the heck out of this dog.


Your turn, dear readers: what cool, unexpected side effects have occurred from the training you do with your dog?

2 thoughts on “Side Effects May Include

  1. I know I have a better relationship with Blueberry because I use positive reinforcement through treats – but it does present challenges when we are hiking or at the park or store that I haven’t learned how to work around. It would be nice to have her be compliant with my requests all of the time without having to dole out the treats. It’s kind of hit or miss with her – sometimes she is very easy going and it’s like we are sharing the same brain we are so in sync and other times, she wants to flex her independent muscles. I don’t know if that is just life with a cattle dog or my poor training skills. Probably the latter.


    1. I get that–and I’m fairly accepting of the fact that I will forever be a dork with a big treat pouch when we’re out having adventures. I doubt that you’re a bad trainer, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with continuing to pay really well for our requests when we’re with our dogs in challenging environments! And environments can be challenging for lots of reasons–Blueberry has lots of interests and hobbies to cultivate and her own ideas about how to accomplish things (cattledog!), and Nala has to sniff every inch and examine every corner five times to make sure that everything is in order and following her totally mysterious rules (although she’s getting much better about this).

      Honestly, there is very little training that I do with Nala wherein I don’t have food on my body and she doesn’t get an obvious reward, although sometimes that reward is to chase the hose, or to jump up and touch my hand, or to play a little game. Still, I’m definitely trying to improve myself by becoming less dependent on food–so I guess this post is as much a reminder to myself that I have a really cool dog who isn’t as reliant on food as I fear (since classical conditioning really does work!) and who thinks I’m pretty interesting (which is partially genetic, I admit. She makes me look good).


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