A decent number of my clients over the past few months (as you can imagine) have been first-time puppy pawrents or they've rescued a dog for the first time, etc. They are typically new to training or new to dogs in general, so it hasn't been super uncommon for me to hear some things about human food vs. dog food; it's usually something along the lines of:
"Oh, he doesn't get human food."
"We don't want her to beg, so we haven't been giving her any human food."
"He only gets his food for training."
And so on...
On one hand, I can see where the sentiment comes from; I mean, when I picture a dog being giving "human food," I feel like I see the classic image of slobbery dog shoving their head in your lap and being fed under the table. Or (with Thanksgiving coming up) maybe you picture a dog grabbing a whole turkey off the counter and making its escape out the doggie door and into the yard (naturally, cartoonish music playing the whole time). With those scenes playing in your head, I can see why offering the new puppy or new-to-you rescue a few bits of food that isn't theirs could feel a little like a slippery slope.
On the other hand, I use human food in training (surprise) and think it's a mistake to disregard an entire category of rewards for our SideKicks! So, let's explore the topic a bit!
What is "human food"?
First, let's talk about what "human food" even is; I think we can all agree that, when I suggest offering human food to your dog, I'm not suggesting leftover Halloween candy, Pringles, and Milano cookies, etc. When you boil it all down to the basics, all living animals eat the same foods or food groups - meat, plants, grains, vegetables, and fruits. Your SideKick's kibble, though highly processed and, perhaps not recognizable as such, is made from the same vegetables, fruits, grains, and protein sources you very likely consume, as well! It might just be semantics, but we're all eating human food!
I get it, though; talking about semantics is just being cheeky. I understand that, when someone says they don't feed their dog human food (in a worried or even a proud voice), they mean that they don't feed their dog from their plate. And this is usually because of a few reasons: they don't want their dog to beg from them during meals; they want to prevent or eliminate counter surfing habits; and they have concerns about their dog's weight.
Human Food & Begging
During meal times, my dog, Ruby, is asked to lay on a mat nearby. Most of the time, it's next to the table where we're eating; other times, we have it off to the side of the couch while we snack and watch TV. Throughout the duration of the meal or snack, Ruby lays on her mat quietly; if we're being honest, she does stare at us (we joke that she's trying to use the Force to levitate the food from our hands to her mouth) and will sometimes (most of the time) drool, but it lands on her mat or her chest...for the most part. This relaxed, quiet, and calm behavior that we like so much was taught to Ruby exclusively by feeding her from the table (GASP). It's true! Ever since she was a puppy, we had a little bowl of her food next to our plates to drop on her mat for this behavior; other times we just took a bit from our meal and dropped it for her. Most of the time nowadays, she gets to lick our plates or bowls when we're done eating!
I'm not suggesting that these are habits you pick up unless you'd like to; however, it's really worth noting that your SideKick is not stupid - I can guarantee you that they KNOW there is something tasty on the table or on your plate at the couch because they can smell it (and you're eating it, so it can't be that bad). A dog begs because the behavior has worked in the past:
A cute little pawing at your guest's leg got them to sneak your SideKick a little piece of something when you weren't looking.
Getting pushy and whining or barking has gotten you to pay attention or just say, "FINE!" and hand something over to get them to be quiet.
Placing their head in your lap, climbing in your lap, or getting rowdy in some other way possibly caused you to tip your plate or drop something and Presto! Efforts rewarded!
It isn't the type of food that is causing begging behavior, but the behavior that is rewarded. If you don't want any of the behaviors above during meal times, your dog either needs to be contained somewhere else during meals or you need to reward the behaviors you'd prefer to see them doing!
Stealing & Counter Surfing
Unlike begging at the table or couch, stealing and counter surfing are self-taught professions and do not require us to reward the behavior for it to continue - your dog can probably find a few rewards on the counters right now if they were inclined to give it a looksie. Very simply, dogs are opportunists and can learn very quickly that counters, tables, elevated surfaces produce yummy things. It doesn't, honestly, matter what it is that they find up there; it could be a homemade loaf of bread, a stick of butter, a jar of dog treats, a bowl of kibble, or any other type of food and the behavior is rewarded. It doesn't even need to be food for the behavior to be rewarding - dirty dishes, pens and pencils, paper products (from paper towel to junk mail...or not-so-junk mail), and oven mitts are all fair game and fun to steal.
Counter surfing can be prevented and worked with in a number of ways and I was inspired to write a post about it back when Ruby was more interested in the counters than I liked. But, counter surfing is one example of stealing; stealing can involve grabbing from the garbage, swooping in on human hands (small children are easy targets), or snatching something that fell on the floor while cooking. Regardless of what the behavior looks like (each of these can be worked on with training), I can say with confidence that these behaviors did not develop simply because your dog had a taste of cheese once or because you give them human food.
I'm in no way qualified to speak about canine nutrition (or human nutrition, for that matter), but, barring medical issues, overweight dogs are usually overweight because they're eating too much. It's the same for us humans; if we eat more calories than we burn, we're likely to put on weight. The calories your dog consumes can come from their kibble, human food or snacks you offer, or the piece of old pumpkin they found on the side of the road.
I once knew a dog, we'll call him Rufus, who gained a lot of weight over the course of a few months. Though he was an active breed and an active puppy, that didn't stop him from becoming quite overweight. Rufus' pawrents were worried and perplexed because, as they told me, "He never gets any human food." It came to light, though, that he was being fed the daily recommended amount of food on his bag of kibble TWICE a day, eating just over SIX cups of food every day...!
If you have concerns about your dog's weight, I'd suggest talking with your vet, but bear in mind that the human food isn't the cause of weight gain (unless, of course, you're feeding well over what your dog requires)!
Human Food in Training
When it comes to using human food for training, which I, of course, do, it can be SO valuable! I often tell people that opening up your fridge or pantry provides you and your SideKick with a wealth of options (that, frankly, are usually less expensive than the training treats you find at the pet store). Having options - particularly options your dog sees as higher value - can make your training smoother and easier and more successful. The more valuable you are and the more valuable it is to work with you, the more likely it is for your dog to want to work with you, for them to want to participate in training, and for them to be excited about difficult behaviors or tasks!
If you're not convinced, try a taste test with your SideKick: put in one hand a couple of pieces of your dog's kibble; put in the other hand a couple, small pieces of something from the fridge (cheese, hot dog, chicken, deli meat, green peas, etc.); and place both closed fists in front of your dog. Which hand do they spend the most time investigating? Which hand do they try to get into? Which hand garners the most licking or slight nibbling? I can take a guess!
Happy training (with human food)!