Food for Thought: Hungry Dogs and Training
Almost all trainers think that when you’re using food rewards, it’s best to start with a hungry dog. But a new study suggests that isn’t always true. Sometimes, it might be best to give your dog a good breakfast before he starts work.
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Like every other dog trainer on the planet who uses food rewards, I tell my clients that they can teach most effectively if their dog is a little hungry. Train right before mealtimes, I say, or go ahead and use your dog’s whole meal, in bits and pieces, for food rewards. Scientists conducting experiments to study learning often keep animals really hungry, feeding them only enough at meals to maintain 85 percent of their free-feeding body weight. (This has always seemed unkind to me, by the way. I would never recommend it – I’m just describing the assumptions many of us make.)
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But what if we were wrong? What if a well-fed animal actually performs better?
A Good Breakfast Helps Humans Think Better …
The researchers Holly Miller and Charlotte Bender realized that it seemed strange for animal trainers to insist that our students learn better when hungry. After all, we human beings are also animals – of the species Homo sapiens – and the opposite is true for us. When human children get breakfast, they do better on tests of memory. They’re better able to pay attention. Their problem solving skills improve. And all of that makes sense, because the brain is a huge consumer of energy, in the form of glucose. Which we get from digesting food. If hunger gets in the way of humans’ brainpower, why wouldn’t it get in the way of our dogs’ brainpower, too?
… So Why Do We Assume That Animals Are Best Trained When Hungry?
So Miller and Bender designed an experiment to test our assumption that animals are best trained when hungry. (Miller, Holly C., and Charlotte Bender, “The Breakfast Effect: Dogs (Canis familiaris) Search More Accurately When They Are Less Hungry,” Behavioural Processes 91 [201, 313-17.) They divided their test dogs – these were all pets whose guardians had volunteered them – into two groups. All the dogs were fasted overnight, and then one group got tested 30 min after having either breakfast or nothing, whereas the other group were tested 90 min later. Both groups were invited to find a treat that they had seen the experimenters hide in one of several containers. Each of those containers also held a bit of chopped Oscar Mayer wiener that masked the smell of the treat. That way, the dogs would have to remember where the treat had been hidden – they couldn’t just sniff it out.
All of the dogs in each group were tested twice, once after breakfast and once while still hungry, so that performance could be compared for each dog. The dogs were tested one at a time, by the way. You don’t have to picture 14 dogs, 7 of whom are famished, homing in simultaneously on the same treat.