Tossing Food in Service Dog Training

Written by Matthias Lenz

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official position on the topic of the organization he is working for.

There is a huge variety in service dog tasks, and there are some core skills every service dog should possess. For example, they should all be able to be in the presence of other dogs without reacting to them. They should ignore people interacting with them, including screaming children and people trying to pet them. In addition, they should have a solid temperament, dealing well with all kinds of stress. Beyond these skills, service dogs are expected to ignore any and all food on the ground. Because of that, most service dog trainers do not ever allow their dogs to pick food off the ground for fear of strengthening scavenging behaviours. The fact that breeds typically used for service dog training, like Labrador retrievers, are often highly food motivated increases that concern.

The thought is that it can be confusing to the dog if sometimes it is okay for them to pick food up off the floor and other times it is not. Every dog professional knows that dogs do best with clearly set rules and thrive when the trainer is consistent in following through on them. Dogs tend to get confused and frustrated when there is a constant change of expectations. Does this mean that, for the sake of clarity, we should always refrain from tossing food when working with service dogs? I don’t think so.

Service dogs should be trained to focus on their owner rather than paying attention to strangers, even when those strangers are trying to engage with the dog. Since service dogs are typically quite social and people-oriented, that is not an easy task. A well-trained service dog understands the context of when it is okay to greet people and when it is time to focus on their work. They might have learned over time that when their vest is off, they get to greet people. Or they have been taught a more formal “visit” cue where the handler sends them out to say hello to a person and they know not to interact with people unless they have gotten the cue to do so.

For years many service dog trainers have refused to use food while training, especially when tossing food onto the floor, convinced that doing so would reinforce scavenging and begging, especially during outings. While many service dog schools and organizations have now incorporated food into their protocols, there are still a number of trainers vehemently opposed to tossing food as a reward event for the dogs. On the contrary, the pet and sport dog communities embrace tossing food on the floor for many different reasons and typically do not experience any fallout from incorporating the technique.

It’s important to give dogs an outlet for a behaviour they are naturally inclined to do rather than depriving them of ever engaging in that behaviour. Not doing so can result in real hardship for dogs already being asked to devote their lives to the service of human activities and needs. There are many ways to do this. If a dog loves digging, providing a specially designated digging area can allow the dog to enjoy this natural behaviour without ruining anyone’s garden or yard. Giving dogs specific times to sniff and explore their environment can make them less desperate to sniff and explore during working walks. Offering species-specific enrichment is so important to the animal. Regularly playing tug with your dog can reduce tugging on the leash and build the human-animal bond through mutual fun and smiling interactions, a break from more serious work-related activities. Having outlets like these can significantly reduce frustration in dogs simply wanting to behave like dogs. Why would it be any different in regard to scavenging?

The simple answer to any concerns about the use of food when training service dogs is stimulus control. Just like with any other training strategy, whether tossing food during training is beneficial or detrimental is dependent on the application and the competence of the trainer. While sloppy training may result in a dog that shows increased interest in picking food up off the floor, clear communication and clean training can easily allow for food being tossed during training without negatively affecting the dog’s behaviour in public.

One can also further reduce the risk of encouraging scavenging behaviour when out in public by creating specific contexts where picking up the food is encouraged while discouraging the behaviour in all other contexts. A dog might learn that only after a marker word are they ever to consider picking up food off the floor, and only food that was tossed by their trainer. Or they might get used to the fact that, in the training room where they learn specific tasks, it is okay to pick up the food thrown, while in other scenarios it is not.

But why should a service dog trainer consider incorporating this strategy into their repertoire when most service dogs are successfully trained without letting them eat food off the floor? Throwing food on the floor instead of delivering it directly to the dog after using an event marker can be beneficial for a number of reasons:

1. It can help reset the dog for another repetition of the behaviour being trained. It can be beneficial to have a dog walk toward you for the next repetition of certain behaviours. For example, if you are teaching your dog to sit in between your legs when you are sitting on a chair, you can mark the dog once the task is completed and throw food away from you. After the dog has left the position in between the legs and gone to eaten the food, they will walk back toward you and be in the perfect position for the next repetition.

Service Dog Instructors at Dogs for Good in the UK regularly use the strategy of tossing food in their training. They typically do this in the training rooms of their facility when shaping a new behaviour and working on task work. The implementation of this has not led to any increased scavenging behaviour of their dogs. 

Another video from Dogs for Good working on chin rest and using tossing of the reward to reset the dog for another repetition and have the dog approach from different angles. 

2. It can help strengthen a certain position the dog is offering. Dogs are quick at figuring out where reinforcement takes place, and they tend to gravitate toward that area. Reward placement can have a big effect on the outcome of your training.

3. It can activate a dog’s natural prey drive and therefore increase participation. Chasing after a piece of food can turn the delivery of the reward into a reward event, and some dogs are much more motivated working under such conditions. They might not be overly food motivated, but they enjoy chasing after the food.

4. It can serve as a quick break and give the dog some time to decompress, thereby allowing for more repetitions before the dog tires. Chasing after the food can be seen as a separate activity from training and can act as a fun little break in between repetitions.

5. The enthusiasm with which a dog returns to their handler after picking up tossed food can be a clear indicator of how well the training session is going, and can provide a fantastic opportunity for a second reinforcer, this time for simply returning to the handler — arguably the most important behaviour of all. The speed and manner in which dogs return to their handlers during training can vary greatly between dogs, but once you know the dog in front of you, it often becomes obvious, based on how he returns after picking up the food, if the dog gets slightly confused or unmotivated.

6. If a dog shows apprehension about a certain area or surface, placing food in that area can help build value for it and change the dog’s perception of that area or surface rather quickly.

7. It can be used to build food drive for dogs that need more of it. By skimming the food across the floor and having the dog chase after it, one can increase the dog’s interest in working for food. It is possible to teach a dog to work for food that way and eventually graduate to using treats fed by hand the majority of the time, once the dog finds it rewarding to work for food.

8. Puzzle toys and treat dispensing toys can be used for mental stimulation and can help dogs decompress after a training session. It could be that a dog is only offered such items in a very specific room or on a very specific blanket to create a certain context so that the dog does not expect getting such things in other situations.

In this video, Laura DeMaio Roy of Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation explains how she used cheese on the ground to trouble shoot a very specific scenario that required very quick skill acquisition. 

Consistency, clarity, and precision are the hallmark of all good training. Scavenging is nothing more than a behaviour, and can therefore be put under stimulus control. Rather than never allowing for food to be picked up, a more elegant and constructive solution is to put the behaviour on cue and teach the dog the contexts in which they are or are not allowed to pick food up. Because there is a certain risk of accidentally encouraging scavenging behaviours if done wrong, I do believe that it is best to leave this training strategy up to the professional trainers and refrain from trying to teach volunteer puppy raisers or clients the use of food on the floor as a reward event. Before implementing food on the floor into a training program, it should be well thought through and there should be a specific plan in regard to which contexts it is allowed for the dogs to pick up food off the floor, to ensure that the dogs are clear on when it is and when it is not okay.

I believe that many service dog trainers unnecessarily limit themselves by completely disregarding this training strategy that is so commonly embraced by trainers of many other fields. Even if one does not use this on a regular basis, trainers should at least stay open-minded to the idea when they find themselves stuck in their training.

Born and raised in Switzerland alongside two Tibetan Terriers and a menagerie of other pets, Matthias Lenz always dreamed of working with animals. His experiences traveling, working and living abroad eventually led him to Vancouver, Canada, where he started working with dogs. He is the current chair of the IAABC Working Animals Division, a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner, and certified professional dog walker. After several years training pet dogs, he transitioned into his work with service dogs. In his current role as Puppy Training Supervisor for BC & Alberta Guide Dogs, he is responsible for recruiting, training and instructing volunteer puppy raisers on how to raise, train and prepare service dog puppies for Guide-, Autism- and PTSD service dog work.