In search of ponies: The power of hunger

By Sharna Johnson

CMI columnist

Easy vittles.

Yep, vittles have motivated creatures for as long as there have been creatures, and easy vittles are a dream come true.

Sharna Johnson

Sharna Johnson

Sure, it’s easy to forget just how compelling food can be when one is well fed and satiated, but one trip to the grocery on an empty stomach and the power of appetite becomes pretty clear pretty fast.

The primal and basic need to eat is a force to be reckoned with, even without the bonus of taste buds — perhaps there was concern that creatures might forget to eat if they weren’t enjoying it — but the need for sustenance complemented by liking the process of refueling can compel critters great and small.

Even humans have been known to quack like ducks and walk like penguins in exchange for chocolate covered ice cream bars (and, yes, money, which they no doubt used to buy chocolate covered ice cream bars).

There’s a reason thousands of cook books are printed each year, new gadgets devised for the kitchen, new packaging and food combinations paraded, gourmet flavor trends worshiped.

The reason is simple — people eat it up, selling hour after hour of their lives to earn money, a good majority of which is spent at restaurants and grocery stores on things that far exceed the basic needs required to stay alive.

So to think that an animal would do just about anything for easy and tasty vittles really isn’t much of a stretch at all.

Taking on the age old debate as to whether animals respond better to food or encouragement when being trained, two researchers — Megumi Fukuzawa and Naomi Hayashi in the Department of Animal Resource and Sciences at Nihon University in Japan — ran three groups of dogs through trials.

One group of dogs was rewarded with food, one with petting and a third with verbal praise in exchange for properly executing the sit-stay commands.

More than loving touches or kind words, it was food that won out, with dogs which were given treat rewards learning what they needed to know in one session.

Dogs who were petted as a reward learned in two sessions and the dogs who received verbal praise in three.

But in the end, it was all for naught, because as the study progressed, the power of food lost its edge and after dogs mastered the early training stages, there became no noticeable difference in performance.

At its core, the study seems to show that food is a stronger motivator than other training methods, but it also appears to go a step further by showing that it is actually tangible reward that is most effective.

After all, food fills the stomach and tastes good, and being petted feels good, but there’s not much a dog can do with a bunch of words — they probably aren’t even that memorable a few minutes later.

But the value of easy vittles appears to diminish as the chores get more tedious, complex and difficult.

Dogs, it seems, have a concept of value exchange and in-kind payment — fairness if you will.

And perhaps their motivation and morale is directed by the concept that increased challenge and effort should bring about greater reward.

… Or it could be they simply have faith that if they wait long enough, someone is bound to leave the treats within reach.


Sharna Johnson is a writer who is always searching for ponies. You can reach her at: or on the web at:

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