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Posted on Tue, Nov 13, 2012 : 10:25 a.m.

Recent study challenges theory that dogs respond to training better if they are hungry

By Lorrie Shaw


Do you think that this dog looks ready and eager to learn?

flickr photo by Andrea Arden

With the advances we've made in understanding animal behavior and dog training, there have been more than a few concepts that have been dispelled.

From examining theories about how canines think, their capabilities and yes, some dog's limitations, we are able to provide an environment that facilitates a better life for our four-legged companions.

A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Kentucky may cause dog trainers and animal behaviorists to rethink a common strategy used in trying to improve focus during training sessions.

The theory of many training professionals that it's a good idea to have dogs participate in training sessions or to come to a training class hungry has been a popular one.

But after thinking about what is known about how eating breakfast helps children to focus better in school, Dr. Holly Miller, along with her colleague, Charlotte Bender decided to test the theory on canines. The researchers looked at canine test subjects and their ability to find hidden food.

As it turns out, they appeared to be on the right track: a full tummy does seem to yield better attention and focus in dogs. (And isn't that what we want when working with them?)

In the test, the pooches were shown a treat that had been hidden in one of six containers. Dogs that had eaten breakfast 30 minutes earlier found the treat more accurately than those that hadn't eaten for 12 hours.

You might argue that wolves and other canids can do well at hunting for food in the wild, even if they haven't eaten much in the hours before.

Ah, hah! But wait, there's more.

An interesting facet of today's typical domesticated canine diet may be behind the difference.

When "dogs eat a diet that is rich with carbohydrates [such as commercial dog kibble], their brains are more dependent on glucose and more affected by fluctuations in glucose levels," Miller elaborated in an interview with BBC Nature.

In animals who need to fend for themselves, they're typically eating food sources that are high fat/low carbohydrates, and the brain automatically switches to its secondary fuel source of ketone bodies (which are elevated in the blood after fasting including a night of sleep) rather than relying on glucose.

Giving dogs every possible opportunity for success in their training is the key, and this includes keeping training sessions clear, short and fun, building trust and a solid relationship and quite possibly going against previous advice and feeding them that morning meal anyway.

Lorrie Shaw leads the pets section for and is a professional pet sitter. Connect with her on Google + or e-mail her directly.


Megan Scull-Monroe

Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 2:45 a.m.

Or feed your dog a species appropriate raw diet, as they were meant to eat.


Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 6:53 p.m.

Sounds like Pavlov revisited. Can't figure this one out because it is a no brainer.

Elaine F. Owsley

Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 1:30 p.m.

We've had seven dogs over the years and never used food treats to train any of them. I really don't like the idea of sticking something in the dog's mouth every time it does something it's asked to do. Our Newfoundland/retriever mix won ribbons for obedience.

Lorrie Shaw

Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 2:34 p.m.

I was always in the camp of feeding-as-usual when I was training our dog, Gretchen and I never gave the idea of withholding food a thought. My first inclination was to rely on my building good, consistent communication with her and rewarding with games and praise as a way to connect instead of treats. I will admit that I used treats as a motivator if it was a particularly challenging training concept, like "stay" - especially when I was increasing distance. If it was a day where she just wasn't focusing, rather than forcing the issue I'd shift to a different game or revert to a training that she had already mastered or skip training altogether for that time. That being said, rewarding with treats can be useful and is common with most trainers these days. I find that it's very helpful with dogs who are fearful, shy, reluctant, have trouble with focusing (I deal with many in these categories) or that have other issues. Balance is key as is timing. But, I also find that treats are overused and with some dogs, it shows: they won't do anything without a treat or are so focused on the treat and not what I (or their owner, for that matter) is/am communicating what I need them to do that they aren't listening to me. They'll sit, then lay down, then get back up, lay down... you get the idea. That's frustrating as the one on the other end of the leash. Thanks for chiming in, Elaine - you make a very valid point.