To Feed or Not to Feed:
That is the Training Question
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The pains and whines of outrageous hunger
Or to take arms against a sea of trainers
And by opposing end the starvation . . .
Forgive me, Shakespeare, for having some fun.
Most trainers have taught us to not feed our dogs before training. The thought was that a hungry dog was motivated to please you for the food rewards.
Then why don’t we send our children to school hungry and reward them for learning with portions of their meals? It’s because science has shown the importance of a good breakfast (good refers to both quantity and glucose balance). The brain in humans primarily uses glucose for energy and generally consumes approximately 25% of the body’s supply. Studies have shown that tasks requiring self-control deplete a person’s glucose level, thus making it more difficult to do subsequent tasks.
Two scientists decided to research whether the valuable breakfast affects seen in humans also happen with dogs. (The resulting article by Holly Miller of Universite de Valenciennes et du Hainaut-Cambresis, France, and Charlotte Bender of the University of Kentucky, USA, was published in the November 2012 issue of Behavioural Processes.) The scientists used the speed and accuracy of dogs searching for food as the task to determine the breakfast effect.
The study involved 14 dogs (although one dog was dropped during trialing for failing to perform the search) including males and females, pure breeds and mixed breeds. All were privately owned and healthy. They also spent two weeks in the study facility being trained via positive-reinforcement to perform a 10-minute sit-stay and food searching. The size of breakfast for each was calculated to be half the necessary daily intake based on the dog’s weight.
Each dog was tested for two days – one day as a fasting dog and one day as a breakfast dog. Before the search test, the dogs were asked to perform a 10-minute sit-stay exercise and were promptly rewarded with a piece of hot dog and praise from the experimenter. Dr. Miller had previously shown that this type of self-control exercise depletes a dog’s energy level and inhibits a dog’s ability to perform certain tasks including searching. This is analogous to the affects that self-control tasks have on human glucose levels and subsequent tasks.
The dogs were divided into two groups – one group performed the search task 30-minutes after breakfast and the other group 90-minutes after breakfast. All dogs were also tested after fasting for 12 hours.
The search task involved finding a warm slice of hot dog placed in one of six containers. The dog watches the experimenter place the hot dog and then must select the container within 90 seconds. This task is repeated 36 times over a 50-minute period. Some dogs did stop performing part way through the session but not enough to statistically alter the results.
The results support the value of breakfast. As the chart shows, dogs tested 30-minutes after breakfast performed better than when tested after fasting. Dogs tested 90-minutes after breakfast showed little difference. This is consistent with humans’ response to breakfast. Glucose levels increase then decrease after breakfast and human task performance correlates to the glucose levels.
Being a person that gets irritable and less able to focus when I am hungry, I can appreciate the results. It also makes me consider other questions.
- If we feed our animals only once per day, should it be in the morning instead of the evening? (Will it also help with weight control as seen with humans?)
- Does the breakfast advantage apply to other dog sports and competitions?
- Is there value in feeding a little bit before each event to maintain a more level glucose balance during a day of competition?
- What is the right amount of feeding before a competition? Eating too much can make one lethargic. Eating too soon before running can upset a dog’s stomach as I learned when one dog vomited in the agility ring.
Hopefully, there will be more experiments on food and training. In the mean time, I am doing some of my own. My female dog has energy spikes after breakfast, after dinner, and after training when treats are given. One would expect her to be tired after training but that only happens during high intensity training (e.g., 4 or more agility runs of at least 10 obstacles in one hour). During competitions, she runs slowest from 1-3 pm. Therefore, I’m experimenting with feeding ½ of breakfast about 20-30 minutes before our first agility run of the day and feeding ¼ of breakfast before each of the subsequent runs.
My older dog is much less food motivated than when he was younger but he behaves like he is hungrier around mealtime. We give him stomach medicine about 30 minutes before meals so his hunger may be anticipation of the meal (Pavlov’s dog effect with the pill instead of a bell). The lack of interest in food when training may be due to stomach issues. For him, giving the stomach medicine and feeding at least a portion of the meal might increase his food motivation through calming his sensitive stomach. I am still experimenting, but I am proposing this as an example of the importance of understanding your dog and his mental and physical health when determining the best approach.
Every person is different and every dog is different. It is worth trying a variety of approaches with your dog and seeing which works best. And yes, I ate lunch before writing this so I would be sharp for my readers.