‘Closed food economy’; using food as rewards in dog training – Cambridge Puppy Training

food economy puppies

Today I’m going to talk about something I am not an expert on, ‘closed food economy’, or ‘closed economy’. I would never rate myself as an ‘expert’ anyway, I think it’s quite delusional if you do, no one can quite know dogs like dogs know dogs, can they? Plus, science moves at such a pace it’s a real challenge to keep up!

As a puppy trainer, I do often hear owners saying ‘my puppy won’t listen’ or ‘he doesn’t want the treats so he won’t work’. It’s a common owner complaint and one I hear often, and one I have discussed before. Food motivation, motivation to work with you and motivation to want to learn. Advice in these situations is usually based around finding the right motivation for your dog, finding something your pup LOVES and going from there, introducing that ‘thing’ as a reinforcement tool. However, can we use our dogs daily food ration for training? I have said before that we can. But how much? Will they work for merely kibble? Or do we need to always bring out the big guns at some point ie. cheese and sausage?

I have heard a term a lot lately, this term is ‘closed economy’ or ‘closed food economy’. Now, I’m not one for throwing about complicated terminology, honest…….but I can tell you, this basically means when feeding your dog there is no bowl, there is no ‘treat’, there is purely working for the daily food ration, all of it. It’s similar in a sense to the NILIF principle, ‘nothing in life is free’. So, your pup will work for every piece of kibble he has throughout a day. Sounds a bit harsh right?

But is it so bad really? A closed economy can be a useful technique if you have a dog who for example, can’t have any treats and MUST be on a particular food exclusively, this may be helpful when you’re really wanting (or indeed needing) to do some training. You may try toys for reinforcement, you can use life rewards, you can try a meat variety of your particular brand of dog food, fashion it into some form of treat! But if you’re struggling to find a motivator for that dog, this may be a method to consider, it may well ‘build up’ the value of the kibble a touch? For example, I prefer Mars bars to cereal bars, but if I didn’t know what a Mars bar was I may well think a cereal bar is pretty tasty!

But, could we not find a happy medium? Often a puppy will be disinterested in training and treats if he has just had his breakfast. Not surprising, I don’t think I’d be particularly motivated by that Mars bar if I had just eaten a roast dinner. But offer me that Mars bar at a different time, when I’m a bit peckish, and yes I will definitely want it. So, can we not have a combination of both? A ‘closed economy’ for the morning for example, your pup does his training for his breakfast. then at lunch time say, you scatter feed, this is a form of ‘closed economy’ is it not? If you count scent work as working, dependent on your training goals I would think. Then for dinner maybe half in the bowl and half in a kong? Unless you are an obedience fanatic who is determined to have every behaviour precise and exact, and consistent to an extreme, is a ‘closed food economy’ particularly necessary?

Of course, I am one to see ‘both sides of the argument’, and we could question whether all this inconsistency surrounding meal times may cause a bit of confusion for your dog, and I am aware dogs will often thrive on routine. They may well find all this chopping and changing unsettling? That is for you to decide. Maybe, just maybe, every dog is different and not all thrive on the same things, some may dislike the unpredictability of this regime whilst others may excel with the consistency of training, and some may just like their food in a kong followed by a nap!

This ‘closed economy’ feeding is much like when moving from free feeding to set meal times, is there a possibility it will increase the value of the kibble to the point it causes food guarding? Is there a chance your dog may feel a tad frustrated? Giving you more problems than when you started? But, do we not suggest hand feeding when dealing with food guarding issues? If you’re asking for a ‘sit’ whilst doing this, which you may, this in itself is then ‘closed food economy’ is it not? There’s also a lot to be said for a relaxed attitude to resources, we’re always so intent on making sure toys or food bowls or other tangible items are ‘ours’. Timewasting. The minute we place high value on something, the minute a dog will feel influenced in his behaviour toward that ‘thing’ no? And then we have a problem.

We do like to see things in black and white in dog training don’t we! And my goodness we do like to analyse……and then over analyse some more. (Oh the irony, what am I doing now?!) But I don’t think there is any need. When we are training, at home or in a training class, we often want a balance. We want a dog who hasn’t just eaten a huge breakfast so consequently isn’t particularly bothered about food, but we also don’t want a starving dog who is sending himself insane at the sight of a bit of food! Maybe make a deal with your dog, you will give half his daily food ration for ‘free’, and you will give half as ‘rewards’ for desired behaviours as you wish to suit your training goals. Your dog may like this deal? You know your dog better than anyone, you be the judge.

Let me know your thoughts on all this ‘closed economy’ stuff! I am interested to know other owners views.

For more information about anything  discussed just get in touch!

Email puppies@cceg.co.uk



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