Food for Thought: Using Food in Dog Training

Photo by Patrick Danforth |

Photo by Patrick Danforth |

There’s a lot of negative talk about using food in training. Even when people are prepared to use it in a class or at home, they often refuse to carry it when taking the training 'on the road'.

Comments include; it’s bribery; I want the dog to work for me; the dog ‘knows’ what I want; it’s inconvenient; I don’t want to rely on it.

I always carry food when I walk my dog. I don't buy processed treats. I use food she could eat as part of her normal diet plus small extras like hard cheese and boiled liver. I haven’t always carried food in the past and may not in the future, but for my current dog I have always done so and here’s why.

She's ALWAYS in training.

She's a great dog. Great at home, in the car, in thunderstorms, around bikes, skateboards, hot air balloons, people; but not other dogs. She used to be seriously reactive to them. Fortunately she isn't now and even has dog friends she can trust, but strange dogs are still a concern to her. Every walk is like an episode of Fear Factor because we are going to see dogs she has never seen before. Sometimes (sadly all too often) those dogs are going to behave in unpredictable ways which give her good reason to feel concerned.

She is trained to walk on a loose leash on a flat collar (food helped with that) and seldom gets treats when we are just strolling. However, treats have helped me teach her that ‘scary things’ mean food will appear (Jean Donaldson’s ‘Open Bar’’) so she became less stressed by them.

Food provides an extra reward for correct choices. She checks in with me regularly and periodically I give her a treat for that because I want to maintain it. I praise and/ or play with her too, but sometimes a food reward makes a nice change.

When she has to walk past strange dogs she isn’t playful. She just wants to disappear and will try avoidance techniques like casting wide or hiding in bushes if she can. I often reward this too. I let her make the choice (first reward) and treat her for staying calm as the dog passes (second reward). In my mind, avoidance is way better than reaction!

I suspect that sometimes food is a distraction as well as a reward, but given the option of a quiet dog eating and a strung out dog possibly reacting, I’ll take the quiet one thanks.

I actively use food as a distraction when the situation is too hard for her coping abilities e.g. the dog that I can see is not under control, but we still have to get past it. Then I shove a handful of food under my dog’s nose and just keep walking. Luckily she keeps on eating too!

Food helps me measure her arousal. I know when she is getting too stressed because she becomes hard mouthed and grabby. I then make an effort to calm her down by giving food treats for calm behaviors like walking slowly, sitting, taking a breath, looking at me etc. As she calms down, she is able to take treats more gently.

We don’t go to off leash parks, but people let their dogs loose anywhere, so at parks I sometimes throw food on the ground for her. She sniffs about to pick the pieces up. This distracts her and is intended to make her look less interesting to distant off leash dogs who might be considering approaching. This doesn’t always work, so when the other dogs approach, food allows me to distract and reward my dog for attending to me while I try to navigate the situation. Sometimes I throw a handful of treats out in front of the approaching dogs in the hope of distracting them while we make our escape.

Unfortunately, because she is so well behaved and quiet, people regularly let their dogs approach her. She is well behaved and quiet because of the level of effort I have put into rebuilding her confidence and teaching her correct behavior. Treats have been a big part of that.

Does she just see me as a food dispenser? Put it this way. If you offered her a large raw steak, I think she would be very tempted. I suspect that given the chance she would eat the steak before returning to me, but if she had to make a choice – I'm certain she would come to me and my empty hands. She loves food, but I think she loves me more :).

So there you have it. I am willing to take the time to prepare small treats to carry on our walks, so I can reward my dog for making correct choices. Before criticising those of us who make this choice, it may pay to look at the reasons you dislike using food and ask yourself:

Is it really bribery? My dog has to work for part of her diet. It helps us both enjoy her walks, and has had a huge effect on her behavior. Even if you still think it is bribery, if it works – is it worth considering or would you rather tolerate your dog’s difficult behavior and stay proudly food free?

Is your dog really working for you or is he/ she working to avoid corrections ? Is your dog even paying any attention to you on a walk? Mine checks in regularly.

Does your dog really know what you want? How often is your dog right? How often is he/ she wrong? If you’re correcting or scolding a lot – this is a sign of a lot of ‘wrong behavior’. How can you be so sure your dog understands what you want if he /she is wrong such a lot?

How convenient is it for you to have a dog which pays no attention to you/ pulls on leash/ reacts to other dogs etc? Would actively training with food on a walk actually be more convenient than you think it is?

You may not want to rely on food, but are you relying on something else? A choker? A harness? Leash corrections? Why is reliance on tools and corrections okay, but training with food isn't?

Remember – if you’re rewarding with food treats, the dog is getting things right. Even if you're distracting with food treats - the dog is getting things right.

If you're nagging or correcting your dog, being pulled along, or struggling to control your dog as he reacts, the dog is getting things wrong.

Isn’t ‘being right’ what you want?

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Positively Expert: Diana Bird

Diana lives in NZ. She is intensely interested in behaviour, teaching, learning, and self development. She strives to generalise positive reinforcement ideas to her life and relationships with other people.


2 thoughts on “Food for Thought: Using Food in Dog Training

  1. Anna

    I have also food in every pocket 😀
    My dogs love to train with me and with food 🙂

    Bloggerin Canistecture

  2. paganone

    I think your description of the dogs behaviour yields the answer to why. You mentioned fear factor. Your fear doesn't allow the dog to be anything but protective/aggresive around other animals. Take control of the dog and stop the behaviour and she will be calm. Make sure it knows you don't need protection by being genuinely calm. I just went through fifteen months of this with a rescued pit bull who is so sweet now.
    The idea of food I don't buy. If you reward the dogs behaviour at the wrong time you are reinforcing the bad behaviour. i see this all the time, while the dog is still wound up the owners are feeding them treats and petting them and cooing at them. This just makes him want to give you more of that.
    If you can't control the animal solely by talking to it then you aren't connected with it on some levels.
    Mutual trust and respect is all you need and a bunch of pets, hugs and kisses.

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