Thursday, April 12, 2018

I never give my dog human food!!

"Oh we never feed him human food!" ... I cannot tell you how often I hear this.  It's kind of an interesting thing to hear, really, if you think about it.  What exactly does it mean when someone says this?  Usually, I hear it in the context of boasting more like "oh my dog doesn't beg because we never feed human food to him, ever, never, ever!" Sometimes I hear it with a statement of disdain if I whip out some pieces of chicken to use when high-value rewards are more beneficial for our training.  Sometimes I hear it in a bragging-type tone when their dog is in good shape as if this is the reason why.  However, there are a few myths surrounding the use of "human food" with regards to giving it to our pet dogs.

Whatever the reason this is stated, I think this phrase should be explored a bit.  Let's go over some things regarding this often heard statement ...

First, "human food" is subjective. I mean what exactly does this constitute? Food only "humans" eat like orange juice, Tootsie Rolls, Doritos, Fruit Loops or Thanksgiving turkey? I mean we wouldn't feed those things to our dogs, right?  But, really, what is "human food"?!  If we want to get into semantics all living animals (including humans) eat the same food, with a variation of some or all of the following: meat, plants, grains, veggies and fruits.  All living creatures eat some or all of those types of foods.  Dog food, while highly processed, has some type of protein in it and plant and/or grains/carbohydrates of some kind, usually rice or sweet potatoes -- which are "human foods", right?!

However, I get it. When people proudly state this to others they aren't really thinking of it in the way that I am.  I understand that they are often saying when they are eating their meal they don't feed it to their dog off of their plate.  I mean, usually, this is what they mean.  By not feeding a dog off of their plate they often feel like this will eliminate things such as: begging behaviors, food snatching and obesity.  I understand the desire to have a dog not beg or grab food or get overweight -- definitely goals most dog owners would love to achieve!

As a note, dogs don't beg because we feed them "human food".  They beg because of the associations they make during certain circumstances. Your dog would beg if you fed him any kind of food or treat or reward to him. The type of food is irrelevant.  What causes begging behaviors is the association your dog makes.  For example, if you feed your dog while you sit at the dinner table and eat your dinner then your dog will learn when mom eats I get food. Therefore, your dog will learn I shall sit next to mom while she eats and wait for food. If I wait long enough she'll give me a few pieces. This is classical conditioning at it's finest.  At the same time, if you sit on your bed and eat your lunch and sometimes feed Fido then your dog will learn to beg when you're sitting on your bed.  It's all the same.  But you could be feeding Saltine crackers or you could be feeding pieces of dog food or pieces of your sandwich.  It's all rewards to the dog. It's all teaching your dog that if/when they beg they will get fed. So, "human food" isn't really the problem.

As for food grabbing or stealing, this is usually just a self-taught behavior. It works the same way as the begging -- an association is made and a behavior is born. If your dog steals "human food" from say your countertops then your dog has self-rewarded and learned that the counters produce yummy things. This usually develops into a behavior we label as counter-surfing.  Again, as with begging, the type of food is irrelevant. Heck, some dogs steal pens or paper or even knives and take off with those and find this behavior so rewarding that they learn to counter-surf that way.  Sometimes the act of stealing is rewarding enough it itself and the dog will continue to do so.  Most stealing is self-rewarded so it becomes a pretty challenging habit to break.  I do have a lovely blog post on how to solve counter-surfing here.  Some dogs steal right out of trash cans or even worse -- right out of people's hands!  I see the last behavior commonly with small kids because they are easy targets.  These behaviors can be solved with training but again, "human food" isn't the issue here.

"Human food" as part of a meal or as a meal.  Honestly, this is the best move you could make for your dog.  "Human food" is a zillion times healthier than highly processed dog food. Without going into full diet discussion, adding some meat, yogurt, fish or eggs to your dog's food is hugely beneficial to your dog.  Healthwise, "human food" is good for your dog depending on what exactly you are using as "human food" to give to your dog as a diet or addition to the diet. Adding any food to your dog's diet can cause obesity if given the wrong amount.  Some foods, of course, are fattier than others, however, obesity is not caused by the type of food alone.  Overweight dogs, medical issues aside, are overfed plain and simple. So, if "human food" is a cause of concern for your dog's weight then you just need to research a little more on what and how much to feed to benefit your dog.  I do highly recommend the book "Raw & Natural Nutrition for Dogs" by Lew Olson if you'd like to learn more about canine diets.

Now, in relation to training ... "human food" can be highly valuable. Depending on what you're working on and where, high-value foods such as boiled chicken, freeze-dried liver, cheese and hot dogs can be a big help in a training program. I always recommend some type of "human food" for recall training and training in distractions.  Dogs aren't going to come to you off-leash in a park if you are offering Kibbles 'n Bits. Yuck. Fido would rather chase squirrels.  However, give your dog a big incentive like coming to tidbits of chicken and you'll strengthen your dog's recall really quickly!

Stacy Greer
Sunshine Dog Training & Behavior, LLC
Dallas/Ft Worth, Texas

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