Clicker Training - It's All About the Food

Or is it?

If I had a dime for every time someone says to me, “He’s only doing it for the food” I would be rich. This is usually said in a somewhat condescending or derogatory way, as if working for food is a bad thing. We all work for food. Money is just the middleman for us. When things go south and money is tight, the very last thing you’ll stop buying is food.

What’s interesting about animals is that they would rather work for food than get it for free. This phenomenon is called contra freeloading.


When I first start working with an animal, it usually is all about the food. I’m a stranger to the animal and they have absolutely no other reason to interact with me, unless they are an overly affectionate animal that loves all people. Not usually the case.

Within a few repetitions of behavior/click/treat, the animal makes the association between the three and realizes that a new level of communication has been established. Most animals are thrilled and become very excited about this but some aren’t ready for it and will refuse to interact, no matter how good the food is.

Consistent reinforcement is key to achieving consistent behavior from our animals, and we use food quite often as that reinforcement simply because it’s easy to use and valuable to every animal. However, it’s clear by the many people who claim their animal is “not food motivated” that it isn’t really all about the food. Even a hungry animal will turn up their nose at food, no matter how good that food is, if we haven’t developed a relationship with the animal and aren’t seen as trustworthy from the animal’s point of view. This is most obvious when keepers use hunger as a motivator to shift their animals in to another enclosure. There is a difference between shifting to avoid starvation and shifting because of consistent reinforcement for doing so, and some keepers miss that distinction. Clearly if an animal would prefer to go hungry rather than move in to another space, it’s not just about the food.

Even more obvious that it’s not just about the food is when I am working with an animal that has free food available to them and they leave that food in favor of taking the same food from my hand after performing a behavior. Clearly it’s more about performing the behavior than it is about obtaining the food.


Shouldn’t they just do it because they love me? 

I’ve always wondered how it is that even people with the lowest self-esteem of anyone I have ever met seem to think that their animals love them enough to work for them freely, even if they’ve only had the animal for just a few hours. There seems to be a common misconception that animals should be grateful for the care they are receiving, even though the animal did not choose to live in their current circumstance.

Aside from that, who do you think is going to love you more? The animal that you punish for every perceived wrong-doing or the animal that you reinforce for everything they do right? There’s really no two ways about it. We are all either doing things because we’ve been reinforced for doing them or doing things to avoid what we don’t like. 

Do you really think that your spouse or children are doing things just because they love you? Why do they love you in the first place? Did your spouse instantly fall in love with you the moment that you met and has stayed madly in love with you even though you’ve never done a single thing for them? I highly doubt it. All of our relationships are built on a certain amount of give and take. When there’s less give than take, the relationship tends to fall apart. 

It’s only about the food if you make it about the food

There are so many ways to reinforce animals and it doesn’t always have to be food. I use food a lot because it’s valuable to every animal in varying degrees and it’s very easy to use, however, I don’t always use food. 

Some animals work for attention, petting and/or scratches, but this is not common. Often overlooked though, are the many life rewards that can easily be incorporated in to your daily practice of routine, known behaviors and can often times take the place of food. 

For example, although you may initially train your dog to sit for a food reward, putting a leash on your dog or opening the door to go outside can also reinforce a sit behavior and can usually take the place of the food in those instances. Similarly a horse may find being led out to their turn out area a highly motivating reason to put on their halter. A dolphin may find the opportunity to play with a ball motivation enough to perform a spin in the water. 

These are just some examples of life rewards but really anything that your animal likes can be used to reinforce what you like. What are some of the ways you reinforce your animals? Comment below!