At many classes, in-home consultations, and orientations, I run into a specific statement - "I don't feed my dog people food". Usually this comes up at the point where I am talking about rewards/reinforcers and how/what we use. Usually most owners will tell me they have a jar with Beggin Strips or Milkbones in it. When I explain that I prefer to use less processed, softer foods, such as chicken, cheese, or turkey hot dogs, many owners puff up and explain that they have never given their dog "people food".
I admire their consistency and I am pleased that they have set boundaries for their dogs. That is very important, but now I have to figure out what the actual behavior the owner was trying to create with this training choice.
Usually it comes from a fear of having their dogs beg at the table or steal from children's plates. It can also exist because a well meaning vet has informed the owner that people food will make their dog fat or sick. Both of these are not incorrect assumptions. Never giving a dog human food will in fact show many dogs that it is therefore off limits. But not every dog. All it takes is one tiny morsel to turn some dogs, into the scavengers they are at heart.
Before I continue, let me clarify the two ideas above. Giving a dog people food can and will create a thief and a beggar.... IF you give them the food for begging, or any other inappropriate behavior. And yes, giving a dog an unbalanced diet of random people food will make a dog fat and sick. However dogs also do just fine on diets made up of home cooked or raw meat diets. To be successful, owners need to properly research and balance these diets, but dogs can be just as healthy, if not more healthy on them. (http://vet.osu.edu/vmc/home-made-diets)
So how do we used people food, ie chicken, cheese, turkey hot dogs, etc, without creating a beggar, or a sick dog? The answer is to use them strictly as rewards and in training. If they are as rare and valuable as the owner has already described them to be, then they will be highly reinforcing and the dog will work very hard to get the opportunity to receive one. If they are handed out every time the dog nudges you, cries, or makes those cute sad eyes, then you have done a fabulous job of training your dog to beg. And if that is the case, that is ok too, because that means it won't be that hard to fix and still means the food is highly reinforcing to the dog.
In conclusion, valuable resources are just that, valuable. Use them for what they are worth. Feel free to use them sparingly as long as you use them powerfully. People food is not off limits as long as you set appropriate limits. Now let's pack up some chicken and start training!