We give our dog treats when she does what she’s asked.
She goes out, pees right away, and comes right back in?
She stops barking at the kids walking by when I tell her to stop?
Given that this pattern of cookie-as-reward is common among dog owners, the following statement, on the surface, appears to be true for us humans:
Don’t reward yourself with food. You’re not a dog.
When I first started seeing this statement, or variations on it, going around Facebook and other social media, it seemed harmless.
After all, we aren’t dogs, right?
Well, sort of.
The thing is, we actually ARE kind of like dogs when it comes to learning new behaviors.
And that’s not a bad thing.
But it’s not the only thing wrong with this statement — in fact, I count four primary problems with the idea that humans shouldn’t reward themselves with food:
1. Cookies aren’t the only reward for dogs.
When I’m not near the dog cookies, and I ask my dog to do something, she still gets rewarded for listening to me. Instead of a cookie, however, she gets some token of affection — a good pat on the head, several “good dog” reassurances, sometimes a little belly rub.
In other words, equating food rewards with dog-hood is misleading. Dogs aren’t only motivated by food (though some are more than others), and just like dogs, people aren’t only motivated by food (though some are more than others).
So to equate food rewards with being a dog is, simply, a gross oversimplification.
Different dogs respond to different motivations. So do different people.
2. Not all food rewards are negative: Part 1.
The statement, “Don’t reward yourself with food. You’re not a dog,” implies that the food used in the reward is bad.
What makes a food “bad”?
I would argue that NO FOODS are “bad” and that there are only healthy and unhealthy choices. And even then, foods we might consider to be “healthy” can be unhealthy in large amounts, and foods we might consider to be “unhealthy” can be fine in moderate amounts.
But let’s assume that the statement is intended to keep people from rewarding themselves with generally unhealthy foods choices — traditional “reward” foods that might include cakes, cookies, sweets, and other high-calorie, indulgent options.
We’ve all experienced food used in this way — even having indulgent, special food on a special occasion is a reward of sorts.
You got a job promotion? Let’s celebrate with pizza!
You made it to the big 40? Here’s a big old cake!
We already use food as a reward in our culture — and that’s not a bad thing. It’s not bad to go out for a special dinner to celebrate a job promotion. It’s not bad to have cake on your birthday.
We even use food in this way with our dogs!
My dog doesn’t know why she’s getting a giant doggy cupcake on her birthday. She probably just thinks she’s lucky.
Our sense of celebration — and reward — is intrinsically human, not canine.
Blanketing ALL uses of food as reward is, again, an oversimplification.
And it denies us something unique to humans — our ability to honor the awesome in each other.
3. Not all food rewards are negative: Part 2.
When we think of food as a reward, we think of treat foods. We’ve already established this.
Isn’t it a reward to feed ourselves after a hard workout?
And is it less of a reward if I choose to feed myself healthy foods?
I look forward to post-workout meals — and it isn’t because I’m hungry.
Frankly, working out temporarily kills my appetite.
Instead, I love eating post-workout because I know I am helping my body recover. The protein, the carbs — my body needs it all after a workout to get stronger, repair itself, and prepare for the next workout.
At first, when I thought of this objection to the idea that only dogs get food as a reward, I thought maybe this only applied to me.
But I don’t think so.
I see evidence of this in almost everyone I know who works out hard. We genuinely look forward to food. It feels satisfying — and therefore rewarding — to feed ourselves healthy food, especially after a workout.
That’s not to say that there aren’t unhealthy examples of this — such as in those with eating disorders, where the reward of a post-workout meal might be the ONLY meal in a day.
But in an otherwise healthy, fit person, even healthy food can be a reward.
4. We need rewards to function. Like NEEEED them.
One of the best books I’ve read in the last year was The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
The most important thing I learned from that book was actually quite simple — the habit loop:
Note what we need to form a habit — a cue, or some kind of trigger, a routine, or some path of behavior to enact, and a reward.
That’s right — we need rewards to build habits.
This works negatively — like the reward of a nicotine buzz at the end of a cigarette smoking habit.
But it also works positively — like the reward of an endorphin rush from intense exercise.
In the book, Duhigg talks about changing a simple unhealthy habit — eating a cookie every afternoon at work — to a healthy one. The process involved recognizing the cue or trigger (for him, this was the time, say 3:30 every day), recognizing the routine that ensued from the cue (walking to the cafeteria to get said cookie), and recognizing the reward (a break from work, a sugar rush, and a little socializing in the cafeteria with friends).
To change this habit loop, he first considered what reward he was seeking with his behavior. Was he hungry? Or just looking for some socialization and a break from work?
Ultimately, he decided it was the latter. To change his routine, then, he kept the trigger the same (3:30 every day), changed the routine, and kept the reward similar. Instead of the quest for a cookie, his new routine was to seek out a coworker — giving him the same socialization reward he originally sought.
This, in fact, is how I’ve started helping clients and coaching patients create new behaviors. We identify the cue for a behavior, identify the routine that person goes through, and identify the reward. We keep the cue and the reward the same, change the routine, and the person gets a new healthy version of an old habit.
This isn’t, of course, fool proof; stress often knocks people off even their most well-intentioned new habits, and old behaviors start to creep back into their lives instead.
But knowing that there still needs to be a reward — as in, you must ENJOY something about your new habits — makes creating new behaviors that much easier.
And it flies in the face of the idea that rewards are just for dogs.
Because really, aren’t we using a habit loop with our dogs, too?
Cue? Tell her to sit. Routine? She puts her butt on the floor. Reward? Cookie or “good girl”.
Human habit loops aren’t so different than dog habit loops.
And our need for rewards isn’t all that different, either.
So reward yourself.
You aren’t a dog if you do so.
In fact, you’re quite human.