In my daily work with dogs and their humans, I seem to encounter these questions a lot. As a positive reinforcement dog trainer, I do ask people to use quite a bit of food when training their dogs new skills. Food is what we refer to as a “primary reinforcer”. Dogs like it and need it to survive and therefore it can serve as a reward for behaviors we would like to see increase in their repertoires. I don’t find that I need to often defend the concept of using food unless someone is more prone to using traditional, punishment based dog training. Oddly, where I see the most resistance from people is in the use of “human food”. “Human food” is anything that is consumable by people, essentially anything you see fit to put in your own stomach, and is completely a man-made concept. I think that people who worry about feeding “human food” to their dogs are mainly concerned that it might teach their dogs to beg at the family dinner table and therefore are more comfortable sticking with commercial dog food and treats. Their dogs might become so obsessed with “human food” that they’ll start climbing on tables to eat the Thanksgiving turkey or the Christmas ham. They fear their dogs will be overcome with the urge to steal food off their plates if only they ever got just one taste of natural chicken or beef.
Lucy’s diet (as limited as it is due to allergies) consists of all sorts of human foods: apples, carrots, lettuce, and bananas. When I train other dogs, I use everything ranging from boiled chicken to cheese. These items are exciting to our dogs and when we give it to them as rewards in training, it’s the equivalent of paying them a handsome salary. That boring, dry dog biscuit is the equivalent of minimum wage. I also try to remind people that any commercial dog food worth feeding your beloved pet is made out of human grade meat to begin with.
So, how does a dog actually learn to beg at the dinner table or grab food off the kitchen counter? If your dog has ever sat beside you while you dined and pawed and whined their way to a morsel of goodness from right off your plate, then you taught them how to beg. If you’ve ever left any form of deliciousness on the kitchen counter and your dog discovered that he could jump high enough to eat it, then you’ve just taught them how to countersurf. The behaviors themselves when reinforced will increase.
It’s okay to feed “human food,” just as long as you teach your dog manners around the dinner table and the kitchen area and the foods that you are feeding are non-toxic to dogs. Teach your hound to lie on a bed across the room when you are eating dinner and reward them for staying there. Clear your kitchen counters so that there would never be an opportunity for your dog to countersurf. Teach your dog impulse control exercises such as Leave It and Stay. Most importantly, stop worrying that giving your dog a piece of steak will drive them to become an uncontrollable, drooling, begging hound. Only lack of training would do that!