Why Does NDT Use Food?




Some consider using food in training a bribe. In contrast many owners don’t, but then the vast majority never get past the Pez Dispenser phase and present a negative image to the use of food. In the seventies I don’t think I ever used food other than giving a dog a biscuit as a token of affection. Now in NDT I do use food, however not as a reward, or, technically speaking, even as a reinforcement. I use food as an emotional ground. Obviously it’s convenient to speak colloquially with the terms reward and reinforcement since everyone else talks this way, but nevertheless it proves vital to make the distinction.

Food creates an emotional circuit and adds a pulse of flow to get the flow of emotion going along that circuit. In other words, showing a dog a treat is like creating a low pressure zone, akin to sticking a hose in a tank of water and then positioning the other end downhill. Next one needs to prime the circuit and get a pulse of water moving that will suck out the rest of the energy in the tank. It’s the flow of energy that drains the tank and reinforces the circuit, not the end of the hose positioned downhill (food). This distinction may at first seem subtle to the point of being inconsequential, but it ultimately factors out to prove all important in training.

When I began NDT practice, I didn’t use food in training. I engaged the dog in contacting and sensual touch because I wanted a purely emotional connection. But I found that in some contexts this was limiting, and it took too long to get the contacting going with the sensitive dogs, especially in a commercial setting, and especially given the resistance of me being a stranger to the dog. That’s when I began to appreciate food as an emotional ground, i.e. a hungry dog is a happy dog. It was the resistance that the dog overcame by becoming more drive centered which proved to be the real reinforcer, not the food.

For example, to say that food rewards behavior would be akin to saying that a host serves a guest food and drink to reward them for coming to their home. Food and drink create an emotionally conductive environment wherein guest and host can more freely share their feelings. Food and drink create a circuit between them, and then it primes the pump and induces a flow around which their interaction can elaborate to a fuller expression that invokes and satisfies the deeper level of emotion. Secondly, the act of ingestion imparts a feeling of security by relaxing and sensualizing the body/mind. The hunger circuitry neutralizes the balance circuity (the root of all fear and the source of all the nervous laughter of the first ten minutes of a cocktail party emanates.) Once emotionally grounded, one is now best able to internalize their companions’ thoughts and feelings, to overcome the resistance of personal boundaries. This deep flow is the real currency that reinforces their engagement. For example if the food is great and the company is lousy, the visit has not been reinforced. Whereas if the food is poor and the company is exhilarating, then the visit is reinforced (and hopefully there’s a dog under the table who doesn’t object to charred gristle) not to mention that given the softening effects of inebriation, even cheap libations begin to taste good.

The reason food looks to be a reinforcer is that it is a material object that both dog and human have in common and this creates an emotional circuit. And because it can be ingested and turns the internal viscera into a motile wave function, with all the pleasurable emotional affects attendant to this, this primes the circuit with a flow of emotion. Now whatever actions a dog may be induced to heighten the flow of emotion through that circuit, are reinforced. But it’s the flow of emotion and the resistance that a drive feeling can overcome that reinforces the dog, not the food itself. Dogs are emotional beings, not learning machines.


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Published May 6, 2016 by Kevin Behan
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2 responses to “Why Does NDT Use Food?”

  1. Nellie Thompson says:

    I think your use of food meshes extremely well with both Bejan and Porges. Ingestion appears to soothe and to provide more efficient flow in the body and in the social system. I just read a book discussing a similar topic that might interest you. I like the note regarding “efficient”.
    “The other important part of the polyvagal theory is the link between the nerves of the face and the nerves that regulate the heart and the lungs. Porges maintains this link provides the neurological basis for social support by triggering what calls he the social engagement system, which is linked to the myelinated vagus that calms us, is self-soothing, and turns off our stress responses, making us more metabolically efficient….the social engagemeant system includes…the muscles of mastication (ingestion, sucking)….The theory involves the complex linking of systems; how the nerves that regulate the heart and lungs are linked (via the vagus) to the nerves that regulate the striated muscles of the face and head and how the cortical regulation of brain stem areas that do this regulation enable us to turn off defensive strategies (meaning that the ‘higher’ part of the brain, the cortex, through the vagus, influences the brainstem to cause it to turn down the two defensive systems related to fight-or-flight and immobilizing). This ‘polyvagal chain of events’ implies that we use the muscles of our face and head to calm us down….To calm ourselves down, we eat or drink….” The Psychology of the Body (2013) by E. Green & B. Goodrich-Dunn (p. 118).

  2. Rip says:

    Kevin — Thank you. Good thoughts on key topic. I’ve been having debate/conversation on food in training with other trainers (as well as with myself) for a long time. You add a new dimension. I can’t say I fully understand but at same time I feel as if the way I now use food falls within your construct. I was educated according to a variation of Koehler and did not use food — religiously. I thought it corrupted the process and relationship. I changed, as I experimented and found not only no damage but better results and happier dogs. Also found much of value with Bart Bellon, Michael Ellis, Gottfried Dildei, Dima Yeremenko and of course Connie Cleveland. Connie may offer most practical and Apollonian approach to food.

    How and how much I use food now is almost a matter of instinct in presence of the dog. Each case is individual. Can’t predict and have no formula. I find the clicker-treat paradigm deadening — not possible for me. I do use it in a conventional sense, as reinforcement and reward, but also I believe to “induce flow and prime pump.” It is an ongoing experiment.

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Books about Natural Dog Training by Kevin Behan

In Your Dog Is Your Mirror, dog trainer Kevin Behan proposes a radical new model for understanding canine behavior: a dog’s behavior and emotion, indeed its very cognition, are driven by our emotion. The dog doesn’t respond to what the owner thinks, says, or does; it responds to what the owner feels. And in this way, dogs can actually put people back in touch with their own emotions. Behan demonstrates that dogs and humans are connected more profoundly than has ever been imagined — by heart — and that this approach to dog cognition can help us understand many of dogs’ most inscrutable behaviors. This groundbreaking, provocative book opens the door to a whole new understanding between species, and perhaps a whole new understanding of ourselves.
  Natural Dog Training is about how dogs see the world and what this means in regards to training. The first part of this book presents a new theory for the social behavior of canines, featuring the drive to hunt, not the pack instincts, as seminal to canine behavior. The second part reinterprets how dogs actually learn. The third section presents exercises and handling techniques to put this theory into practice with a puppy. The final section sets forth a training program with a special emphasis on coming when called.
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