Category Archives: Animal training and weight management

Dogs and Christmas Eating

I remember going for a walk with my parents and their two dogs a few years ago – before they attempted any proper training of said dogs. We were strolling down a grassy hillside enjoying a rare dry, sunny day in Wales when we sighted potential disaster ahead. The area was usually deserted but on this fateful day a family, with three children, were having a picnic.   They had a neat white cloth, a bottle of wine, bottles of lemonade, heaps of precisely cut sandwiches  and a large cream cake.    Dad made a comment along the lines of, “That family have got an impressive picnic!”

Ben and Sammy, the young Labradors, clearly had the same thought. They came thundering up from behind us and headed for the picnic at full gallop. Dad screamed dire threats but they ignored everything – they had the scent of sausage rolls in their nostrils. Dad took off after them like a racehorse out of the stalls, but the dogs were faster. They hurled themselves into the centre of the picnic in a frenzy. It was so awful we felt like abandoning the dogs and just running away. By the time we managed to rugby-tackle and remove the dogs, the picnic was no more.

That was when Mum and Dad realised it might be a good idea to train their dogs.

Dogs have their own agenda. They pull on the lead, chase cats, sleep on the cream sofa, hoover food off worktops and of course invite themselves to picnics. They don’t engage in these behaviours because they are trying to be “dominant” or leader of the pack – they just do whatever seems most compelling in the moment.

Until they are trained, dogs respond to cues from the environment – smells, sheep, cats, other dogs, food on the counter-top, etc. Once trained (and this can all be done using positive reinforcement based methods) they respond to our cues and start to be less in thrall to their environment.

You’re probably thinking, “What on earth is she whittering on about this time, and has it got ANYTHING to do with weight loss?” Well, our unconscious mind is a bit like an animal, and it’s not necessarily a well trained one! It sometimes takes charge of our eating behaviour, which is why we can’t always control it.

You want your brain to tell you to eat in response to just one cue – hunger. That’s it. However, in reality, it will respond to all kinds of environmental cues, cleverly set up by food companies and society, and accidentally set up by you. Just as a dog will respond to the scent of a squirrel (or a picnic), we are primed to respond to “eating cues” whether they be internal (e.g “I feel bad therefore I must eat to feel better”) or environmental (e.g. “I am in the cinema therefore I eat popcorn”).

Christmas time is absolutely stuffed full of “eating cues”. But you can make it easier for yourself by manipulating some of the environmental cues in your favour. Just as you wouldn’t take an untrained dog in a field of sheep, try to avoid the cues which make most people over-eat without even being consciously aware that they’re doing it:

  • Large plates and large serving utensils make most of us over-eat.
  • Stubby rather than tall glasses cause most people to pour and drink more.
  • Large bags of food tend to make us eat more. Dish out a serving rather than eating from the bag.
  • Tempting food within reach will get eaten whether we’re hungry or not. Put leftovers away and don’t have a box of Quality Street within reach while you’re watching TV!
  • Eating while watching TV makes us stuff 40% more food down. Better to eat at a table if possible.
  • Variety tends to make us eat more. Be aware of this and ask yourself if you are really still hungry. You can always try different foods later.
  • Smaller “fun size” foods tend to make us eat more in total.
  • “Diet” or “low fat” foods tend to make us eat more in total. If you’re going to indulge, do it properly and steer clear of things like Elmlea and low fat options.

By manipulating a few of these things, you will naturally eat less without feeling at all deprived.

But most of all, enjoy it! If you have a “diet mentality”, you are likely to feel that all bets are off over Christmas and you might as well scarf food down yourself until you feel physically sick. So, avoid this kind of thinking. Stop eating as soon as you stop enjoying your food, and remember the diet doesn’t start tomorrow so you can have more lovely food later and you don’t have to eat it all today!

Have a great time over the holiday period!

Horse training, rats and over-eating

I have two horses and I like them to be well behaved but also really enthusiastic about what we do together (which is not always the case with horses!) I use clicker training (positive reinforcement) where the horse gets a reward (usually food) if it does the right thing. In clicker training, you pair the food reward with a “click” sound so the horse learns that the click means “Yes, that’s right!” This gives you an extremely powerful way to communicate very precisely with your horse.

Here’s my young horse Oto.

(Yes, this is relevant to overeating… read on!)

One of the concerns about training horses using positive reinforcement is that they are very big animals and sometimes they just have to do as they are told, even if they don’t want to, to avoid hurting someone. So, the obvious question is: “Why would a half ton horse do something it doesn’t want to do, for just a piece of carrot or a few oats?” It seems to stand to reason that if the horse wants to do its own thing more than it wants a piece of carrot, you’ll have a problem.

Oto bridge March 2010 00m 10sHowever, surprisingly, it doesn’t work like this. Once the horse is properly trained to do a behaviour, it becomes a habit to do it when you ask for it (i.e. when you give a “cue”), even if the horse has a strong motivation to do something else. So, I have trained Oto to stay with me on a loose lead rope, and the other day he did this even though a motorbike went past at about a hundred miles an hour and scared him. It’s become a habit. He keeps the rope slack without consciously thinking about it.

So, what’s this got to do with overeating? Well, in researching how animals respond to “cues”, scientists at John Hopkins University in Maryland have found that if you consistently show a blue light when feeding a hungry rat, say, pizza, and a red light when feeding the rat ice cream, eventually when you flash a blue light, the rat will eat pizza EVEN IF IT IS ABSOLUTELY FULL. And if you flash a red light, it will eat ice cream. The lights become “cues” to eat and they are followed automatically even if the rat doesn’t really want to eat. Similar responses have been found in humans.

Do you think maybe the food and advertising companies could have taken a special interest in this research?

So, the challenge is that we are bombarded with “eating cues” and we have been “trained” to perform certain behaviours (e.g. finish what’s on your plate). We can end up eating or finishing our plates even when it makes no sense, just as my horse didn’t run away when a big, scary motorbike was coming right at him! We end up eating and we might not even know why. We may not even consciously notice the “eating cue” – perhaps we walk past an advert or we smell something and then we find ourselves eating before we even know what happened. These cues go to the instinctual, emotional part of the brain, which acts very fast and at an unconscious level.

So, are we just helpless victims in all this? I think not. If we make a conscious effort to pause before carrying out “trained” behaviours, we can over-ride them. You are trained to stop at red lights but you can override this if the lights are broken. You are trained to use a toilet but sometimes you have to over-ride this on long walks in the hills!

Eat consciously and avoid going into autopilot whenever you can. Make a conscious effort to leave a little bit on your plate. Train yourself to get into helpful habits, like stopping when you are satisfied, so that this habit is strong enough to over-ride any external cues. And bear in mind that the food companies will be happy to train you to over-eat whenever they can!

Showing 7 comments


This is interesting Roz. Do you think the rats and lights researh could be used to STOP eating? if it could i get find myself with a nice little sidline of changing the colour of the light in peoples fridges! or even putting a light in the cupboad where i store crisps and bread! i guess that a colored cloth draped in the cupboard might also work. your thoughts would be interesting.

04/24/2010 10:54 AM
Roz Watkins

Interesting idea, Paul! I can imagine them doing something horrible with electric shocks… Or you could associate a particular colour light with feeling sick – that could be done with NLP. Or, I wonder what would happen if they flashed a green light every time they fed the rats some nice salad or vegetables… You could go around installing green lights in people’s fridges! Joking aside, this would quite likely work. Stranger things have happened on the Derren Brown show 🙂

04/24/2010 12:50 PM
in reply to Paul

the problem i have with leaving a little on my plate is what if i’m really enjoying my food?!

04/23/2010 10:41 PM
Roz Watkins

Hi, yes, this can make it hard to leave some! It’s really just about breaking the habit of ALWAYS eating everything on your plate (if that is a habit for you). If it’s not, and you don’t eat beyond hunger because you are good at not putting too much on your plate, then there’s no need to do this.

But some people never leave anything. If you ever let someone else serve you, this means you are letting someone else decide how much you eat. Research with “bottomless” soup bowls (which fill up from underneath) has shown that some people will just keep on eating pretty much forever if the bowl never empties! If you have this habit, you are inevitably going to over-eat on a regular basis.

If the food is really nice but you are full and there is still some left, why not save it for later when you are hungry again? Often, the need to eat it all in one go stems from dieting in the past because there is a thought in the back of your mind that if you don’t eat it now, you might not be “allowed” it later!

04/24/2010 07:44 AM
in reply to kateab

What about that bread smell in supermarkets? I’m told it isn’t even real bread but a chemical they waft a chemical scent of baking bread. Once you sniff it you can almost feel yourself rushing to the bread counter. Pause and walk on. I bought a bread machine.

04/23/2010 06:05 PM

Roz Watkins

Funny – trains do it to me too! They trigger sleeping and eating…

04/23/2010 11:45 AM

Yes I know this effect – there is something about train journeys that cues ‘eat grab-bag pack of Quavers and a kitkat’ to me … matter how long the journey is! Still at least I recognise this now and sometimes (shock horror) I go on a train and don’t eat anything!