Why a Hungry Dog Isn’t Such a Bad Thing; Why Treat Training Works and Shock Training Can Backfire

I try to keep My Dogs Thin. Thanks Alison Morin for the Photo of my Boy Jovi

I can’t tell you how often I hear… “My dog won’t take treats during training”


“My dog doesn’t like treats”.

And, whereas there are lots of motivators and nontraditional motivators for more on those nontraditional motivators click here  that you can choose from food is a strong motivator to any living thing.

I Think Sometimes People Don’t Want to Use Food

I think sometimes people don’t want to use food.

There is such a stigma attached to using food or treats in training.

People imagine fat dogs begging at the table or a dog that only listens if you have a full hot dog dangling from your fingers.

The truth is that food is a valuable resource and asset when it comes to training if you use it correctly.

Let me bold that…


If you misuse food, you will see poor results and can reinforce bad behavior.  For more on misusing treats and understanding how to use them more appropriately click here 

I recently had this discussion with a reader on our site.  She didn’t want to use treats, she only wanted to use praise or correction.

I think that severely limits your skill in training to the best of your ability, and limits your training tools.

Plus using treats (if you do it right) see above really has no negative nor will it traumatize your dog like other tools that I prefer stay OUT of my training bag i.e. shock collar, prong collar, etc.

The Key For These Hard to Motivate Dogs is Hunger

Thanks I love Dogs for the Photo

Thanks I love Dogs for the Photo

A fat satiated dog doesn’t need to work for food; food isn’t a motivator if you have free access to it!

Let me say that again…

A Fat Dog Doesn’t Need to Work for Food

I recently reviewed a research study on rats from 1948 (yes 1948) that was really interesting and still pertinent in dog training.

It is called Motivation and Reward in Learning performed by Yale University and Neal A. Miller and Gardner L. Hart and I have to say it was very interesting.

I remember reading some of these studies in school because they relate to learning, not just in rats but other animals and humans as well.

At first a hungry rat (they say VERY hungry… which is kind of sad, I think basic hungry will do although I am not sure how long the rat went without food) and a satiated rat are put in a box.

The hungry rat learns to move around (because he is hungry) and pulls the lever.  The satiated rat (or rat that had food in his box/house all of the time)just curls up in a ball and sleeps with little to no interest in testing his environment.

Fat Rat Vs. Hungry Rat

wireheadThis would be like trying to train and work with a dog that has free access to food all of the time and is not hungry.  There is no real reason to work and learn if you don’t want to.

But the hungry dog would be motivated to learn and work with his owner, while the satiated dog may not be (note: not all dogs need to be HUNGRY some dogs have a natural food motivation), this is for dogs that are hard to motivate with food.

Next the satiated rat was shocked to get him to move and show drive so he could learn.

I remember when I was a kid reading about these “experiments” I always felt sorry for the shocked rat.  I wouldn’t want to be shocked!

And, even though in the video it says the rats were only “irritated” by the shock and not hurt, you can see the rat jumping and climbing and trying to get away from it; hence the reason the rat finally does what he is supposed to and pulls the lever.

shockThis Reminds Me of the Ever Popular Shock Collar Method

This reminds me of dog trainers who say shock collars don’t hurt, or they just irritate the dog, or that these collars can be used for positive; my opinion is that it hurts just like you can see that it hurts the rat.

They say that the satiated rat that is shocked learns faster (probably because it hurts and his “drive” to stop the pain is greater) but this certainly isn’t the relationship I would want with my dog.

Because just like the trainer I was speaking to, if she didn’t want to use toys and treats, only wanted to use praise and touch then she probably had to employ negative methods like the prong, choke or shock collar.  She assured me her dogs were happy, (and in some ways I am sure they are because MOST dogs are happy, they are just happy creatures) but I bet they dislike being hurt or “corrected” just like the rat doesn’t like being shocked.

Next you can see that they shape the rat’s behavior with shocks to bite a wire.  In the video you can see that the rat nearly bites through the wire… my guess is that is because the shock hurts and biting is a way of alleviating the pain and is a more natural behavior.

I believe that this is why some dogs will bite their owners when they use shock collars.  Not all dogs do, some react alright, some are scared, some develop ulcers, and some react with aggression to stop the pain.

Finally the rats are taught that if they attack one another the shock goes away.  They quickly learn to fight, again I believe it is because of pain and frustration as well as learning.

This video perfectly illustrates why I train the way I do.

I hate watching an animal in pain, and if I can alleviate that by simply making him work for his food,  skipping a meal, making him work for a living for his food (click here for why that is good) or just using treats and toys I would rather do that than employ tools that hurt and cause aversion.

And, let me say “hungry” doesn’t mean “starving”  starving is abuse, hunger is simply your body saying it’s ready to or wanting to eat.

Want to review the video and the study to follow along with my thinking process click here https://archive.org/details/Motivati1948 !  But do be prepared to be a little sad for these rats.

What do you think?

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  1. How do you get a dog to stop digging holes in the yard? He is 1/2 German Shepherd and 1/2 Siberian Husky. I have put meat tenderizer in the holes read they don’t like, vinegar etc….Help!!!!


    Minette Reply:



  2. Teigan says:

    Hello, my dog Eden is very food-motivated. The only problem is, she only obeys when we have food (are we using it incorrectly?). We have have two different trainers come out an try and help us with Eden’s problems. One was all positive reinforcement and Eden learned NOTHING. The other says she needs Eden to respect her and she wants to use the shock collar on her to “interrupt” her behaviour. We have tried everything from training with treats to punishing for incorrect behaviours. Eden continues to bark at every guest we have over, chase our cat, pull on the leash and counter surf (we don’t leave food out she’s very quick and steals it right off our plates). We even bought the hands off training program from you guys but Eden seems to defy all regular training ideas 🙂 sadly though, other family members want to leave Eden at the shock collar trainer’s house for a week of “intense training”…and that idea terrifies me. Do you have any suggestions? The worst things are barking at guests and chasing the cat. Thanks!


    Billy Douglas Reply:

    No Not the shock collar she will come rite just keep firm and clear she will come o.k maybe she needs her space/place to go to when your mates come over or dinner is up feed her first maybe. I have a crazy 10 month old who was very tough to train at first but she is lovely now learning new things every day. good luck keep it up I am sure she is a goodie.


    birgit Reply:

    I may not be a professional dog-trainer, but, if I may say so myself, have some basic dog-sense, having dogs since about 40 years and training with them since about 20 years ( for competitions in the beginning. then after being disappointed with the training methods applied in the club, starting to do it my own way). For a professional dog trainer to say to you that the only way for him/her to control your dog is by force is in itself a poor recommendation for him/herself. There is always a way. And I advise you, DIY. Think in terms of your dog. Put yourself in his level. I have a dog ( we got him from a friend) who was barking at every sound outside. After being in our house two nights, he was quiet as a mouse. What it took, company and security. Okay, two nights I had to spend it in the dog house and make him feel safe, but in the end it worked. Maybe with your dog it is the same – insecurity when people come over. Try lowering yourself into her level and experience what is going on from her point of view. It may change everything.


    Minette Reply:

    You need to spend more time with the dog on a leash and training. read this http://www.thedogtrainingsecret.com/blog/avoid-leash-dog-training/

    and yes you are misusing treats read this as well http://www.thedogtrainingsecret.com/blog/misusing-treats-dog-training/


  3. Willi says:

    Poor Eden! Poor yous! Sounds familiar to me a thousand diff methods wont work if Eden thinks she is the boss. Feed her after you, train her when shes hungry (great post) take away privileges, toughen up. Toughening up for my rescue dog was one of the hardest things ive had to do but it worked. Back to basics. Fewer commands but mean every one!


  4. Harley says:

    I agree that a hungry dog is a motivated dog and when they work for their food they are much happier and more well adjusted. That being said it’s important to reward your dog within 1-2 seconds of the correct behavior,and to not lure your dog by shaking a bag of scoobie snacks to lure your dog into action. Luring is o.k. when teaching a certain behavior like heel, but if you try to lure your dog to come your dog will only perform when he knows you have a treat for him. That’s why I always phase out food and replace it with life rewards, like going for a walk, even going out to pee and sniff the ground is a reward for most dogs.
    Thanks for the great information, and oh yeah, I tried to feel for the rats but I really don’t like them much. They freak me out!!


  5. winston brooks says:

    I pay for this video already, then why should I have to pay for it again the same one?


    Minette Reply:

    There is no video to pay for the article is free


  6. Jim says:

    As a retired psychologist I can attest that rewarding people or animals for a desired behavior (i.e BF Skinner – operant conditioning)is an effective method of teaching a new behavior to both people and animals. Food is often an effective reinforcer but some people simply have a hang up with using food as a reward. I do not. However , If I initially use food to teach a new behavior I pair it with a secondary reinforcer such as Verbal Praise (good dog, good girl etc) as well as brief petting or physical contact. This is called Classical Conditioning and was created by Pavlow and his hungry dogs.
    The goal here is to eventually and quickly fad or remove the food reinforcer and the secondary reinforcer (verbal Praise) eventually has the same motivating power as the food.
    So food as a reward is really a temporary means to an end.

    Often the whole learning sequence can be completed in 30 minutes or less – if you have a hungry dog. Usually the dogs love as they think they a playing with you and eventually learn how to elicit verbal praise from us. So in a way dogs can actually condition us to a bit. Learning is often a two way street.

    Happy Training


    Minette Reply:

    Thank you for your response, I agree absolutely.

    I would add that adding intermittent reinforcement throughout the lifetime of the dog strengthens the behavior. You just have to know how to use that reinforcer to your benefit 😉

    Often it is easier to teach the dog than the human 😉


  7. Kelly Lalonde says:

    I agree that I have concerns about using treats to train my puppy, as I’ve found a) treats ARE incredibly effective, but b)my puppy tends to get diarrhea after a “great” training session. I guess withholding her meal and using that as a motivator might be more effective, as food DOES seem to work very well with my young pup.
    Beyond that, as a zookeeper, and animal caretaker, I will say that using food to “train” or motivate animals IS a tool used IN MANY MANY WAYS! As a zookeeper, we used food and/or special treats or food in order to get animals to do what we want. In Sea World, at the Dolphin touch pool, dolphins were trained to bring “strange” objects they found in the pool to their trainers at the back of the pool in exchange for a yummy small fish. Why is that important? Because there are WAY TOO MANY people willing to shake keys, sunglasses, plastic toys, bags, and inappropriate “food” (such as popcorn, hot dogs, etc.) at the dolphins in order to get the dolphins’ attention so the people could touch/interact more closely with the dolphins. However, dolphins are so intelligent, they would not only take EVERY single “strange” item to their trainer in exchange for the yummy fish, they would also pick up every leaf, pebble, or piece of odd paper they were able to find in the pool trying to exchange it for “yummies.” Animals are INCREDIBLY intelligent…that’s why we can train them to “act” on shows/movies, hunt down criminals, sniff out drugs, track missing people, etc. Using food as a motivator is not cruel, it is simply utilizing an animal’s natural instincts to do whatever is necessary to survive. In the wild, they measure the risk-vs.-payoff and will almost always choose the risky action for the payoff of food. In zoos, in order to stimulate the animals in our care, we will often find ways to create more challenging situations for our animals to feed, such as hiding their food, giving them live food when they are accustomed to dead prey, putting their food in challenging places so they have to work to obtain it, and offering unusual foods that are not a part of their daily routine. This not only stimulates their drive to hunt (for predator species), but also stimulates brain activities, neuron connections in their body, muscles, reflexes, and develops and maintains their muscle strength. In the zoo field, we call this ENRICHMENT. It supports and encourages animals on every level of survival and their ability to thrive in their environments. Food is really THE MAIN motivator in the wild for an animal and/or species to survive and thrive, so really, it only makes sense to use that as a stimulus to train the animals we have domesticated to suit our own purposes – like when we USE dogs to serve and protect, to be companions, to be family members and to join our society as the social, dependable, reliable creatures we expect to be “Man’s Best Friend.”


    Minette Reply:

    Thank you for your response 🙂 I appreciate that from someone who is a zookeeper

    I like to build drive for toys, which may help your puppy with learning, fun and his diarrhea


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