Lose weight using the same processes as you would use training your dog.

01 Nov

Why I feel dieting plans could learn from positive dog training.

I have been on diets on and off all my adult life and I have lost lots of weight and then gained more. After attending the ClickerExpo Luminos conference last weekend and listening to the wonderful Dr Susan Friedman who did an amazing presentation called "What's the Function" which my personal understanding was if you want to train anyone or anything or make behavioural changes, you have to have the function in mind ie the reason "why" you are doing it. It doesn't have to be anything earth shattering it could be:

  • To build confidence.
  • To be healthier.
  • To learn a new skill.
  • To make life more fun.
  • To make life happier.

All these are perfectly acceptable "whys" the important thing is because you have that "why" and it is a behaviour modification you can find out where your are now, where you want to get to and how you plan to get there.

Since the weekend it has today occured to me that the reasons (apart from having no self control) all my diets have failed is I didn't think "What's the Function" ie what is my real "why". The motivation most diets use are not conducive to long term behaviour change. I am no scientist like Dr Friedman so will explain this in my own way.

I know I am greedy, it is bad for my long term health and have no self control which can apply to many dogs including terriers, spaniels and labradors to name a few, but most of our pet dogs have us humans to control their food intake. This could work for me if someone put my daily food ration in front of me 3 times a day, but it wouldn't as I have access to shops, petrol stations & fast food outlets. Also if I was fed like many dogs ie the same food twice or three times a day every day I would get bored very quickly.

Dogs are very accepting of us, don't you think? 

I also now realise I have dieted for lots of reasons but no real "why" including, to get ready for a holiday, to compete with another person, someone has made a insensitive comment to me, or some other short term reason. I have never sat down and thought what function would losing weight make to my life. Would it make me healthier, happier more enriched or just thinner? I need a BIG "WHY" 

We should go through this process when deciding on a major behaviour change with our animals too. If there is not a function or a big enough "why" are we committed enough to making the changes for our dog  

The boredom factor when on human weight control diets can be the downfall of many dieters including me and also is the lack of motivation and reward therefore would not ensure a long term behaviour change. This is where the comparison to the operant conditioning quadrants used as part of the modern dog training methods for learning & behaviour change may be used for big behaviour changes in ourselves,

The four quadrants of operant learning as developed by BF Skinner in 1953  and how they relate to dieting and dog training are: 

Positive Reinforcement  (+R), Positive Punishment (+P), Negative Reinforcement (-P) Negative Punishment (-P). 

I am going to mainly focus on +R and +P  as these are more straightforward to understand but the other two also come into play in the learning process. Below are some examples of how the process can work with both situations

Positive Reinforcement +R

This is when something nice is given (added) to the person or dog when a wanted behaviour occurs to encourage this behaviour  to happen again.

Dog Training

We would like the dog not to jump up when they greet guests. To encourage the dog not to jump up as their default behaviour when guests arrive, in the future we will reward/reinforce the dog when they have all four feet on the floor (our wanted behaviour). The method of asking for another behaviour which means the original behaviour cannot occur, this is  called a Mutually Exclusive Behaviour (MEB) which is used in many modern dog training methods. Positive Reinforcement has been scientifically proved to help with long term behaviour change.


When on a diet and we are at a social function, we know we should choose the healthy option at a buffet table rather than the unhealthy option. Unfortunately we do not make the right choice as we usually don't have a person watching our every move and giving us reinforcement or rewarding us for making the right decision (in some cases we have some one encouraging us to make the wrong choice). 

So instead we should decide on our own personal reinforcement and as we are trying to lose weight food rewards are probably not practical unless a stick of carrot is highly rewarding to you and if it was we probably wouldn't be on a diet any way. This will not be practical every time we make the right food choice but a little inner word of praise may help. We should though all be able to think of a reward for a number of good choices, eg buying yourself a small treat which could even be your favourite indulgence such as a small glass of wine or a piece of chocolate, having a bubble bath or going on your favourite walk with your dog. It can be anything as long as it is rewarding to you. 

This strategy in the long run will make weight loss more achievable and long lasting as each time you have made the right choice something good will happen soon.

Positive Punishment  +P

This is when something unpleasant happens to the dog or person or something they like taken away from them when an unwanted behaviour occurs to discourage this behaviour from happening again.

Dog Training

We would like the dog not to jump up when they greet guests. To stop the dog doing this when guests arrive in the future we ask the guests to tap the dogs nose when they are jumping up. This method and others like it such as pushing away, jerking the collar and shouting is used in aversive methods of training. It may stop the dog jumping up but it is because they don't want to be bopped on their nose rather any other reason not because it is a considered change of behaviour.


Choosing the unhealthy option at a buffet table rather than the healthier option and a person who knows you are on a diet makes an unpleasant comment about your choice or it could be your inner voice being nasty to you. This makes you feel horrible about yourself so you change to the healthier option on this occasion and it may stop you making the wrong choice in the future for a short time as you are afraid of being "told off" by others or yourself.

Therefore weight loss may occur for a while. Otherwise you may go and eat unhealthy food in private and beat yourself up about your choices which will ultimately make you give up.

There are many other ways of "reinforcing" or "punishing" unwanted behaviours but if you don't know "What's the Function" or have a big "Why" for changing yours or your dogs behaviour, your motivation will be lacking and the likelihood of long term success is greatly reduced.

So I feel if I follow the kinder and more functional approach to behaviour modification in all aspects of my life, not just when working with dogs and to have a big "Why" in my mind. I feel with Dr Susan Friedman's help I will hopefully break one of my biggest unwanted behaviours once and for all. 

Wish me luck

Thanks for reading if you would like to comment or share please do so below.

Gill Gallagher IMDT APDT 01433

Allsorts Dogs Training

07595 217299


Dr Susan Friedman http://www.behaviorworks.org/ 

BF Skinner https://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html 

* The email will not be published on the website.