At my training club, we always tell people to come with a hungry pup. particularly those in our beginner classes who haven’t developed a solid working relationship yet. The thinking is that a dog on an empty stomach will be more motivated to stay focused for a reward. But it turns out that the opposite may be true.
It's well known that humans perform better after we eat breakfast. So two scientists at the University of Kentucky set out to see if this holds true in dogs. Dr. Holly Miller and Charlotte Bender looked at canine test subjects and their ability to find hidden food. Some pups were given a morning meal first and others had to work on an empty stomach. You'd think that the hungriest ones would be the first to find the food, but the study found the dogs who ate breakfast were able to find the hidden food more accurately .
Dr. Miller believes that diet may explain why domesticated dogs experience this phenomenon, but wolves don’t. When animals eat a carbohydrate rich diet (such as most commercial dog food), their brains are more dependent on glucose and are more affected by fluctuations in glucose levels. But with a diet of hunted meat, where carbohydrate levels are low and fat content is high, the brain switches to a secondary fuel source of ketone bodies, meaning their neural processes don't fluctuate as much.
This research definitely changes how I think about training. Usually I work with my dogs before breakfast and after their morning walk, but this study is something to consider when I’m doing something that requires a lot of focus or self-control. And maybe we’ll reconsider telling people to show up to class with a super hungry dog!