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.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #204

Dogs Did Best with Breakfast!

When did the dogs do best at finding the hidden treat on the first try? Drumroll: When they were tested 30 minutes after eating breakfast. That was when their memory for the treat’s location was best. At 90 minutes, there was almost no difference between hungry dogs and breakfast dogs – that breakfast benefit was gone.

Unfortunately, the demonstration that a good breakfast improves dogs’ cognitive skills is somewhat clouded. That’s because the researchers had their dogs do a 10-minute sit-stay before the search. The self-control of a sit-stay involves what are called executive processes, a cognitive function that (like everything else about the brain) vacuums up available glucose to use as fuel.

Another Possible Explanation?

Also, although Miller and Bender believe that the increased blood glucose provided by a breakfast accounts for their results, they explain that there’s another possibility: the hungry dogs may have beenso eager to find the food that they made mistakes out of sheer excitement. The same possibility applies to the dogs who searched 90 minutes after being fed – maybe they also were hungry enough to make them overeager. (This is a recognized pattern in learning, called the Yerkes-Dodson law. The very short version is that eagerness improves performance, but only up to a point. Overshoot the eagerness sweet spot, and performance falls off again.)

As for me, I wondered whether some of the dogs who went for one of the “wrong” containers actually just said to themselves, “The heck with that wiener I saw the guy hide – I smell deli meat in every last one of these babies.”

But Miller and Bender’s results are, well, food for thought. They’re consistent with other studies of how eating and hunger affect the hard work of thinking and learning. They even match my experience with my own dogs, all of whom have been just as focused on training after dinner as before. I’ve always believed that this was because reward-based training makes the work of learning pleasurable, beyond just the satisfaction of physical hunger. But maybe having a good meal on board was actually helping my dogs stick with work. 


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).