Using Food to Train Your Dog

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Modern dog training uses food to reinforce (or reward) desirable behavior. Scientific research and anecdotal observation show that food is easy to use and both effective and efficient when training new behaviors or dealing with behavior problems, but some owners understandably have concerns. Here I’ll break down some of the reasons treats are awesome and debunk a few myths. And yes, I’ll answer the most common question: will you always need to use food?

Why Do Dog Trainers Use Food?

Put simply, food is easy to use and lets training progress quickly. Treats are a positive consequence for doing something right. When your dog’s behavior earns them a positive consequence, they are likely to repeat that behavior. Using treats is part of rewarding your dog while teaching your dog to do what you want them to do and can also be used to change their emotional reactions to things they don’t like or are afraid of. On the flip side, if your dog is doing things you want to stop, treats give them direction on what the correct behavior is. There are a million things your dog can do “wrong”, but treats can be used to reward the one or two things you actually want your dog to do in the moment.

Food rewards can be given in tiny pieces that are eaten quickly. This means you can reward frequently, speeding up your training. Eating is also a necessary behavior for your dog that naturally feels good. You don’t need to teach your dog to enjoy getting food; you simply need to offer the right option. Treats can be given by anyone and don’t require a person to be able to hold, touch, or even get close to your dog. (That’s why food rewards are used to train large, dangerous animals like tigers and bears in zoos.)

How to Use Food When Training Your Dog

Identifying Your Dog’s Favorite Foods

Whatever you use for a reward must be something that your dog will work to get. If your dog doesn’t care about dry kibble or hard dog biscuits, those things simply aren’t rewards. Often during training you’ll need a range of foods that are more or less exciting to your dog. Challenging situations will need better treats! List your dog’s favorite foods in order of how excited they get about them. If you’re not sure, try some of these ideas:

  • Soft/smelly dog treats
  • Freeze-dried meat dog treats
  • Honey Nut Cheerios
  • Hot dogs
  • Cheese
  • Deli meat
Dog Taking a Treat
Photo Credit: Pezibear/Pixabay.com

Divide treats and other foods into tiny pieces – no bigger than an M&M for large dogs, half an M&M for small dogs. Check with your vet if you are concerned about the effects of new foods on your dog’s diet and health. Be aware of common ingredients that are poisonous to dogs, including, but not limited to, onions, garlic, and xylitol (found in sugar-free peanut butter).

When to Reward

A reward lets your dog know when they’ve done something right and motivates them. The more rewards your dog gets, the quicker they will learn and the more eager they will be to focus on you and to work for and with you. Reward a lot! When training a new behavior, you might easily go through a handful of treats in only a couple minutes. 

The reward should always come right AFTER the behavior you want. If you show the treat first, it becomes either a “lure” which is used to encourage your dog to do something or a “distraction” that hopefully keeps your dog’s attention away from something else. While they have their uses, lures and distractions should be used sparingly to prevent the dog from only paying attention when treats are visible. If you are using treats or other rewards to lure or distract your dog, this isn’t necessarily training them to do the desired behavior in the future. You can learn more about fading a lure here.

Myths About Training with Food

There are a lot of myths about using treats as rewards during training. Often these come from trainers who are still using out-dated training methods or people who have made some common mistakes when trying to use treats. 

Using Treats or Food Will Cause Your Dog to Beg

Many people worry that a dog who is used to getting food from people will try to beg for it constantly, especially if the dog is given “human” food like cheese or hot dogs. Luckily this just isn’t true! When used properly, your dog will actually learn that they can’t just get treats for staring at you while you’re eating. Instead, they’ll understand that their own behavior is what gets them the food. They’ll learn to wait until you let them know they’ve done something to earn the treat. By only rewarding the behavior you want, treats can easily be used to teach your dog NOT to beg!

Your Dog Will Only Work For Food

Again, this simply isn’t true, so don’t worry. See the section above about “when to reward” and the “luring” section of this page for tips on preventing issues during training. Continue on to the next section for more about how your dog will learn to work for fewer treats and also for things other than food.

Your Dog Should Do What You Say Because They Respect You

There’s an idea out there that dogs should work for you and do whatever you ask because they want to please you. The reality is that dogs are living beings with their own motivations. They will seek out what they need and want and do what it takes to get that. Some dogs do seem to see their people as the ultimate source of everything in the universe. Others clearly understand that they can steal food off the counter, run away if they aren’t on leash, or get attention by jumping on anyone they see. They aren’t disrespecting their owners; they’re just doing what works to get what they want and have never been taught differently.

Your dog may want to please you or they may not, but you can train them effectively either way. And once the two of you can start to work together and understand one another, your relationship will get stronger. That is where respect and a desire to please comes from. Train using food and your dog becomes your partner.

When Can You Stop Rewarding Your Dog?

Sometimes it feels like your dog should just do what they are “supposed to do” without needing a cookie. But consider this – how would you feel if your boss told you she didn’t want to pay you anymore because by now you should be doing it for the satisfaction of a job well done? Being paid for doing good work isn’t a bad thing! 

That being said, you don’t need to reward every single thing and you don’t need to always use food rewards. Over time you’ll ask for more behaviors in a row or longer stretches of appropriate behavior between rewards. Always reward “hard” work though – anything that takes a lot of energy or focus from your dog gets a payout.

Life Rewards: It’s Not All About Food

Dog in Yard with Ball
Photo Credit: Jessica Char

Treats are a fast and easy way to reward your dog, but they aren’t your only option. Just like food, anything your dog wants or enjoys can be a reward. Once your dog understands the basics of a new behavior, you can use many aspects of their daily life to practice and reinforce that behavior. Throwing a ball, putting down the food bowl, opening the door for a walk, taking the leash off at the dog park, and giving attention and cuddles can all be wonderful rewards for good behavior. While your dog doesn’t need to work 100% of the time, they can learn to love training and listening to you because it leads to so many of the fun things in life.

Takeaways

  • Reward a lot! Keep doing it.
  • Reward after your dog does something right and when they don’t do something wrong.
  • Reward AFTER a behavior you like.
  • When redirecting a problem behavior, ask for a different behavior you can reward.
  • Use life rewards to naturally reinforce desired behaviors.
  • What does your dog want and how can they earn it?

Behavior change is all about consequences and associations. Using rewards for appropriate behavior leads to long-term positive change.

If you need help using food to change your dog’s behavior and creating a dog that excited to work with you, schedule a private behavior consultation.