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Over the last ten to fifteen years, I’m seeing an increase in the use of deprivation as a training technique.  I first heard of it in the behavioral realm….”nothing in life is free” otherwise known as “NILIF”.   In a NILIF program the dog earns everything – the dog learns to ask (by following commands) for anything they might want or need.  The dog learns that the owners controls all valuable resources, and with this recognition comes a chance to gain control of the dog’s problem behaviors.

Another common use of deprivation as a training technique is for puppy raising – commonly called “crate training”.  Puppies are deprived of their freedom when they are not supervised so they can become housebroken and learn not chew up your house or personal belongings.  The dog learns the rules about where to pee and what to chew, thereby hastening his movement towards trustworthy family member, while the human benefits by having the house left relatively intact. While crate training has room for abuse, as a generic training technique it provides a logical and humane answer to the realities of puppies.

The purpose of this article is not about either of these uses of deprivation, nor is it to consider the choice of some individuals to have dogs live their lives in outdoor kennels because they believe this is how dogs should live.  The purpose of this article is to look at the ethics of using deprivation as a performance training technique – withholding  food, movement  and opportunities for social interaction – to increase the dog’s motivation to earn those things within a performance context.

One of the challenges in considering the ethics of this training method is coming up with a definition.  Deprivation training  is not as much a method as much as possibilities on a continuum.  Deprivation suggests a change from what is “normal” – if normal is a four hour daily walk and steak for dinner, then a one hour walk and kibble for dinner must feel like a jail sentence for that dog.   On the other hand, if “normal” has never included any walks at all and boredom is standard fare, then the dog isn’t truly deprived as much as “missing out” on a more interesting home – he never knew the difference.

I do not believe that there is a black and white definition for acceptable or unacceptable levels of deprivation, but it is a matter that each individual trainer might wish to contemplate. For example, in my home, I do not allow my young dog to play with my student’s dogs though she would like to do so.  I do not allow her to chase squirrels in the trees , and if one of my dogs chooses not to work for me, I will end their training session.  I am comfortable with my decisions because I do not consider playing with other dogs, chasing squirrels or the right to work to be basic needs as much as privileges which are earned, and I certainly provide my dogs with an interesting and enviable quality of life.

In my mind, it comes down to the underlying motivation of the owner and the degree of discomfort experienced by the dog.  If the owner’s motivation is to create active discomfort in order to facilitate work then I am concerned; how concerned is a function of how much discomfort the dog is experiencing.  Hunger and lack of social interaction both create active discomfort – if you question whether or not boredom and social deprivation are actively uncomfortable, I’d give the example of Jaycee Dugard, the young girl who was kidnapped and held hostage in her captor’s backyard for several years.  In her recent book, “A Stolen Life, A Memoir”, she states that her boredom grew so great that she began to look forward to her captor’s visits because she so desperately craved human interaction.  The fact that he raped her on these visits did not lessen her need for social interaction, and illustrates the point that deprivation can cause as much discomfort or pain as physically applying an aversive.

It seems clear that the deprivation method is compatible with heavy handed training and motivational training alike, and is widely recommended by trainers on both ends of the spectrum. Clearly, the use of deprivation falls on a continuum, so the question becomes, where does one draw the line?  Let’s look at two examples.

In its most mild form, food deprivation is more about HOW the dog eats rather than WHETHER the dog eats. For example, in training a young dog to track,  a person might withhold their dog’s breakfast and place it at the end of the track in order to heighten their dog’s motivation.  The dog earns breakfast at the end of the track. I’m comfortable with this scenario – If a dog eats out of a bowl, off a track, or out of your hands – he still eats.  At the other end of the continuum, a dog who refuses to work may not receive any food at all, even if that takes several days, something I find more ethically challenging.

Or, take crating (deprivation of movement and social interaction); the use of a crate can create desire for work. For example, an owner chooses to train their dog in play skills when they get home from work for the day – the dog has been crated for a while so is keen to interact.  In this use of the crate, you’re using a naturally occurring event – the dog is crated when you are not home – so he is particularly excited about playing with you when he is released from confinement.   Although the trainer is  using deprivation, it is not done specifically to create boredom, so I find this acceptable. The dog will want to do something when released – might as well use that opportunity to train your dog.

This becomes more troublesome when deprivation becomes a lifestyle. Let’s say the dog is released from the crate after a long day and chooses not to play with the trainer, preferring to sniff and wander instead. If the dog is then placed back in the crate, she might not experience any freedom at all until she performs. And since it  is common to see food deprivation combined with a crate, the dog that chooses not to work may be returned to the crate hungry.

The problem with these more extreme examples is that there are many reasons why a dog might choose not to work. While proponents of deprivation training usually argue that the reason is because the dog prefers the alternatives – possibly chasing squirrels in the yard, playing with another dog, sniffing around, or simply sleeping on the couch. Unfortunately, in my experience, the reasons usually have more to do with the handler.

I teach seminars on how to play with toys.  About half of the dogs who will not play with their owners will play with me; that is because play with toys is largely a mechanical skill.  In a high percentage of cases, I can teach you to play much better simply by tweaking your mechanical skills.  Note that this has nothing to do with the dog – more crating or deprivation will not teach a dog to want to play if you don’t know what you’re doing.  You can train some dogs to play in spite of your poor skills, especially if the dog is naturally inclined to go into play easily.  But if a dog requires better handler skills to figure it out, it seems unfair to punish the dog for the trainer’s ignorance.

In addition to teaching play skills I also teach competition obedience.  Fully 90% of the problems I am asked to address are solved through a change to the handler’s mechanical skills or personal interactions with their dog.  If a dog lags and goes wide in heeling because the handler drifts about and walks slowly, then the solution is to teach the handler how to walk properly and reward in position.  Holding the dog responsible – either through a classic correction or through a round of crate deprivation – will not solve the problem if the handler’s actions are maintaining the incorrect behavior.

Sadly, deprivation training is both common and generally accepted in some dog sports with the justification that keeping dogs in a chronic state of deprivation is needed for high end performance dogs. Proponents argue that these dogs must receive all good things through work, lest they decide that work isn’t very interesting if any other options are available. If this is true, it is a rather sad commentary on the state of one’s training – the trainer is unable to make work interesting unless they actively deprive the dog of basic life requirements.  Taken to an extreme, one wonders if a performance dog has any innate value at all beyond what it can do for another; much like a motorcycle that is well taken care of and highly regarded but without rights of its own.

I haven’t even touched on the other issues that deprivation is supposed to solve – distracted dogs (that are too immature or poorly prepared to work in a particular environment), stressed dogs (who cannot function for their safety concerns), high drive dogs (owners respond too slowly to communicate effectively), low drive dogs (owners don’t recognize that their dog is temperamentally unsuited for their sport), and bored dogs ( owner’s expectations of their dog far exceeds what they are able or willing to give in return). Yet…the dog is held responsible.

Teaching is the human’s responsibility; we lead the dog.  Use of excessive deprivation specifically to create motivation is not a method I’m comfortable with, since it appears to abdicate your responsibility to train well – at the dog’s expense.  Dogs do not need to live in crates or kennels to want to work with you.  They can live normal lives, eat normal quantities of food, and get normal amounts of exercise. Your dog will still look forward to training because you can make training fun.

This essay is not about solving your training problems – I haven’t given you solutions to a dog that either cannot or will not work for you.  But I’ve suggested the place where you might want to start looking for answers – within yourself.

About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

26 responses »

  1. There is an academic study on the persistence of dogs who are satiated and those who are deprived. The deprived dogs gave up more quickly than the satisfied ones. Perhaps blood sugar? I’ve passed that around to those people who habitually withheld food from their performance dogs prior to going into the ring. I’ll see if I can find it. Also, Kathy Sdao’s new book “Plenty in life is free, …” speaks to this exact problem. I bought it as an ebook (Dogwise) and am truly enjoying it. Even Susan Garrett, author of “Ruff Love” said the book was designed for a worst case scenario and should be modified for each individual dog – she called for a little common sense.

    • I once decided to try not giving my dog breakfast before going into the ring to heighten her motivation. I thought, lets do this together and I skipped my breakfast too. What I felt was a diminishment of my energy rather than heightened motivation and never used the approach again.

  2. Here, here!! or is it Hear, hear!!? I know several people who use crate deprivation quite a bit. It works in some ways for what is wanted, but I feel bad for their dogs. I have used it a day or two over the past few years to try to build drive for tracking, and do sometimes skip a meal prior to tracking and then he’s eats on the track. I don’t think the crating made much difference, and a skipped meal may or may not backfire with him. The problem lies with me screwing the tracking up, not with him not having the drive.
    You wrote, “Dogs do not need to live in crates or kennels to want to work with you. ” I agree. Really, I think Kaleb considers the house just a bigger crate. He would rather go with me and wait in the car in the crate during the day than stay at home. I can’t take him when it’s too hot, so he has to stay at home. We get somewhat less time actively playing together those days, but when I get home he goes out to potty and then he’s ready to play (work). I don’t see a difference between him coming out of the house or coming out of crate after 4 hours, except for stretching. He can get distracted in either situation, or he can turn it on and be ready to go. It’s all about how I interact with him at the time.

  3. Thanks for this post. I’ve just had a dog come to live with me a couple of months ago; a 4 year old sheltie. He had been abused and doesn’t seem to know how to play. He seems to want to, but he is hypervigilant of any sound or people around, so is easily distracted. I know the breed and know they can be aloof, and when he knows people he is very friendly, but getting him outside to play has been difficult. He is only crated at bedtime and he loves his crate.

  4. I know a lady around here who had a trainer, once, tell her to put her standard poodle in a dark closet for a few hours, so that when he came out he’d be more willing to work…. I have ethical issues with that sort of deprivation.

    I also like to let my dog just be a dog, sometimes, and sniff and walk and play without the expectation of work. However transitioning to work is seeming a challenge, but I think we are working it out.

  5. My dog won Round 2 in the 20″ class at AKC Nationals this year – no slouch in agility. She will put herself in her crate because she loves her “little house” but I deny her nothing she needs, and very few things she wants, in life. If the dog wants to work with you, she wants to work with you. I think depriving her of other opportunities to get her to want to work with me would say more about my LACK of ability to get her to engage than my lack of ability to manage a dog. I wouldn’t treat a human partner like that . . . I don’t have a basement with a sturdy hook in the wall.

  6. Connie Kaplan

    I enjoyed this post. I’m a novice trainer (1st dog in over 20 years, 1st dog I’ve ever trained) I have my 1st leg in Novice A AKC obedience. I know nothing and am learning a lot. What I know is that I’m not doing anything I’m not comfortable with and my dog is primarily a pet dog so I will err on the side of taking away from obedience to make a better pet. (in my inexperienced opinion) Love your posts, hope I can see you soon. I’ve been to Michael Ellis twice and Forrest says I have to see you!

  7. Kasia Mikurda

    My dog loves playing toys at home and at the neighborhood park, but at the training center, trials, etc. he couldn’t care less. I tried and I tried and I tried some more. He looks somehow guarded and not interested in toys. I would love to move more from food to toys at the trials, just like I can do at home.

    • I feel your pain, Kasia. Have been through that with my current performance dog. Attempting to force my boy to play tug or pay attention to toys while in a training or trial situation was a bust. However, I did learn how to build value for the toy or tugger and it took several years but was well worth the trouble. There are many ways to build value but you have to find out what “flips your dog’s switch” so to speak. If your dog won’t tug, will he/she chase you? All I really needed was a way to build excitement in my dog – which in turn built drive. Find out what your dog loves and what makes him or her scream with excitement – and sneak up on it in public venues. For my dog, it was MY motion that made him excited – that, and a tennis ball (on a rope) wrapped with a rabbit pelt. We have now graduated to a simple hunting bumper on occasion but the rabbit ball stays in my trial bag – just in case.

      • Julia J. Stege, D.V.M.

        My dog is crazy for bumpers like never before-because we use them for retrieving at the beach(her favorite activity). I’m going to use the bumper for rewarding
        agility now since it has gained such value!

  8. I want to look up this book “Plenty in life is free”!!! =)

  9. Reblogged this on Denise Fenzi and commented:

    I expected this blog to create consternation, but it did not happen.

  10. Please write more on this subject . What about playing with other dogs ? could you elaborate on this a little bit ? This is great ! THanks

  11. All these negative methods, seem to me, to be one reason obedience is lagging.
    There will always be people who will do anything to get that prize or ribbon. That does not mean they do not love their dog, they just see the dog differently.
    Interesting to note that Miclele Pouliot uses food in training, never stops using food, and uses more food the week before a trial. She has beautifully trained and performing dogs.
    My dogs are my family. They sleep on the bed, have the temp adjusted for them, eat the best food. No way am i going to use punishment in training. Training is a positive time, where we have fun together. I do set limitations and boundaries in life. We are not talking about permissive here. We are talking about, ” Is showing worth the penalty to dogs?”,, who are here for such a short time.
    I will not compromise my relationship, with my dog, for any ribbon.
    I have a box full of ribbons, some lovely. My family don’t have a clue what they are or what they mean. It is all about what is life about, and what is the dog’s life about? Some dogs love to show.
    I don’t like to show, love to train. At present I have two dogs, without the temperament needed to show in strange places. I love them any way.
    I remember when top trainers went through dog after dog, to get to that tough one that would take the harsh corrections and score. How pitiful. Life is too short for all.
    Thank you for showing that you can train, show and get success with gentle, human methods.

  12. I used food deprivation with my boxer to change his attitude and got fantastic results. For us, the key was Maddux clearly knew what to do, how to do it, he just chose not to. I am in the camp that dogs will “give the paw” but it’s a fine line of knowing your dog vs. the dog being confused. I have a video of an open run that is so painful to watch, I haven’t been able to watch the entire thing. Maddux was choosing not to work with me not just in the ring but also in training So I stopped showing and spent six months using the work for food program and when I started showing again, I had a dog that was fun again. We still NQ but we at least NQ with a fun attitude and not a painful run.

    In the beginning of training this, yes. He was denied a few meals which motivated him in our next session. Now I don’t have to withhold any meals as he is always trying so when an error is made, I show him the food he could have had (he still works for his meals), say nope, and try again. But if his old lack of effort attitude reappears, I won’t hesitate withholding.

    I also crate a dog and bring out another dog to work/play with if I’m not getting the effort I’m looking for.

    But one cannot use total food deprivation with a dog that doesn’t understand the exercise. My guess to the dog in shawnlea’s comment is that dog didn’t understand what was being asked, only that it was hungry.

    With my Std. WH dachs, I use toy deprivation as he is FAR more ball motivated than food. Exact same principle with the same results.

  13. Denise – It might really help us address your article more concisely if you distill down exactly what you want us to focus on.

    • I don’t’ generally respond to comments on my blog; I simply make the opportunity to present alternative points of view available. If there is something in the article that you you wish to address, then go ahead! That way readers can get a better sense of all sides of the issue. If you actually want a specific response from me, then do that on my facebook page – I will discuss there, but not here.

      • Denise – I was simply addressing your earlier comment (below) and attempting to understand your concerns. So sorry for any inconvenience.

        dfenzi | September 12, 2012 at 6:19 am
        Reblogged this on Denise Fenzi and commented:

        I expected this blog to create consternation, but it did not happen.

  14. Diane of the dogs

    12 months ago tomorrow I took back a dog I bred at 3 1/2 years old. She belonged to very dog experienced people that I had known for over a decade (different breed) and had been going to agility trials since she was 8 weeks old. What I did not know when I placed her was how they trained. Turns out they simply train til a dog “can” do a given item and then never perfect or polish it nor work on giving the dogs enough skills to have confidence. What happened with this dog is they expected her to be good with things without any training: barn cats, livestock, dogs wrestling in front of her crate, etc… When she proved drivey around stock and cats instead of training she was confined, when she was drivey and jumpy/mouthy with the kid she was crated, when she was rough or rude with other dogs she was crated and isolated. Eventually she became a “crate to trial dog” (crated with a sheet over it unless out pottying, training or trialing) And she also needed needed more skills taught so she would not stress in the ring (she was VERY overfaced and did her best in spite of it but the stress in her face in 90% of the trial pics is so sad). She DID earn many CPE titles (and is in fact just a handful of standard Qs from the full level 4 title) but the crate spinning, barking (both she learned from the other dogs crated next to her) and dog intolerence as well as slow to mature mentally made them bring her home to me. ALL things that we worked through and resolved with her Mom before her first real trial at 12 months old. I consider this to be the extreme of deprivation and the results are very sad. She’d never been for a road walk, a woods walk, been loose in the house or just been a dog. We’ve spent the last year making her a dog and she’ll probably never compete again. Dog was a MACH/OTCH/RAE prospect and now because of the training methodolgy………………………

  15. Great post! It seems like people always take things to extremes and the poor dogs suffer. If pet owners would simply use a little common sense, it would be wonderful!

  16. I agree with you 100%. . As you know, I was not only encouraged to use depreviation on my ‘late bloomer’ puppy, but scolded (and humiliated) because the results failed to increase drive and motivation. the results were the complete opposite, as you might recall, my ‘late bloomer’ became depressed and stressed. I can’t officially say the use of depreviation, as you described above, was the cause. But I’m pretty sure that it contributed to his compromised mental and physical condition. That said, once I gave up that idea I was still confused about the ‘working dog’ vs the ‘pet dog’ and how to have a working dog that is also a pet dog. I am glad you cleared that up here. And in your previous re-post about the working dog having a family relationship with your husband. I was told that if my dog was going to have a pet dog relationship with my husband that it would compromise my working relationship. So far I haven’t seen any compromise. Whatever training problems or relationship problems I have with my dog doesn’t have anything to do with him laying around the couch watching football with husband.

  17. I think this speaks to the major underlying issue, which is to manage emotional state and arousal levels. So often people want to skip this and just train. They get frustrated if their training isn’t working so well or they are having problems with performance and reliability when they haven’t done the foundation work in making sure the dog is in the best possible place emotionally and has the best possible arousal level for the task they want the dog to do in the first place. Foundation work is tedious and not sexy, but people don’t get fun dogs that wow the crowd with their performance without foundation work.

  18. Pingback: The Week in Tweets – 21st June | Some Thoughts About Dogs

  19. This post really spoke to me. I am working with my first greyhound puppy (I’ve been very successful with ex-racers in agility and obedience). And I have been jacking around with her meals to try and increase food motivation. But lately I have been feeling that it probably has more to do with me and my training than her food motivation…. why does the same hound nose around the kitchen looking for more food after her dinner? Why does she work so hard to get to a tiny piece of kibble? Anyways, you put my thoughts into words. Thank you.


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