It’s So Not About The Food

The resistance to use food to train dogs is among one of the challenges reward based trainers face with pet owners. Nevermind that state of the art, modern animal sanctuaries, zoos, research labs and amusement parks use food rewards to train animals, dog owners find the idea of giving their dog something other than a pat on the head, to get behaviors, aversive. Their reticence is an indication of their naivete (I’d say ignorance but I don’t want to offend anyone).

Recently I had the opportunity to meet with the devoted owner of young dog. As a pup the dog was rescued off the street where she was not likely to survive for long. On her own and suffering from a nasty case of mange she was nursed back to health and has a life many humans would envy. Her owner has very clear requirements for the dog’s behavior and his clarity has helped create a dog who understands what is expected of her in many situations.

When people know you are a dog trainer it’s not long before they show off all the ‘tricks’ their dog has learned. What I see is often the same, a dog who has been able to ‘figure out’ most of what their owner is trying to get them to do, but it involves lots of repetition and escalating voices. I respond by breaking out the treats. By rewarding the dog quickly during or immediately after the requested behavior we can get faster, cleaner, more reliable responses from the dog. Unconvinced the owner commented, “Of course she’s doing what you ask, you have food.” For an inexplicable reason the shouting and repeated requests were preferable to handing the dog bits of cheese.

It is true that food is a powerful motivator of behavior. If it wasn’t we’d all still fit into our the jeans we wore in high school. Initially it would appear that the only reason the dog was enthusiastically performing ‘tricks’ was for the treats. But to believe that this is the only reason dogs will do what we ask of them, is to be missing important and key elements of the interaction.

Learning is rewarding, it has to be or species survival becomes unlikely. As a child I could spend hours learning how to perform new physical skills, walking on stilts, jumping on a pogo stick, twirling a hoola hoop. These skills might seem irrelevant to my success as a human being, but the motivation to learn how to do something new, and do it proficiently is how cures for diseases, new computer operating systems, and more efficient ways to grow vegetables are born. It ‘feels good’ to learn new skills.

The science of animal behavior has demonstrated that the reward takes second place to the anticipation preceding it. This means that the bigger hit of ‘feel good’ happens before the reward is in their mouth! Making this an even more awesome process the anticipation of a reward increases when there is a degree of uncertainty as to whether it will occur or not.

As or more important than the food treat is the interaction the dog has with its human. That dogs find the engagement in a social relationship with humans rewarding is what makes them unique among animals. Many of us enjoy the companionship of our dogs when we are doing nothing more than lounging on the couch watching television, and observation of our dogs would lead us to think that many of them enjoy it as well. If we can enjoy each other when we are doing ‘nothing’ it’s not a stretch to think that they also enjoy being with us when we are doing ‘something’; walking, tossing balls, chasing and playing, and yes, training! The food is a tool we use to help the dog build new skills and responses.

Of course the idea that it’s not the food can only be true if a dog has enough to eat. Unfortunately this is not the case for many dogs. In the past two years through the “Write a Post, Help a Dog” initiative at BlogPaws, PEDIGREE® and bloggers have united to generate nearly 650 blog posts to raise awareness about commitment to adoption and encourage everyone to help feed shelter dogs in their local communities .

Last year, each participating blog generated one 20 pound food donation to shelters affected by Hurricane Irene for a total of 2,980 pounds of new PEDIGREE® Dry Dog Food . Food donations are delivered to shelter and dog rescue groups in times of need with the help of Rescue Bank, a National Pet Food Distribution Program for Animal Rescue Groups and Organizations. All qualifying shelter and dog rescue groups are encouraged to apply for donations at

This year PEDIGREE® is donating one 17lb bag of dog food to homeless animals for every blog post written (like this one!). Join us in this blog hop and help feed a dog so they can move on to learning about how fabulous it feels to have a home, be cared for and learn new tricks.
Once you’ve written your post visit this page and add your blog to the hop!



19 comments so far

  1. Catherine McBrien on

    Thanks for the post, Deb. I am astounded that anybody could be reluctant to use food to train any animal. It is an elemental need on their part and we are so lucky to have a motivator to gain happy compliance. One of my new horse’s had a belligerent attitude which was basically solved using my version of a clicker/carrot form of training. Why on earth would anybody not want to use such a powerful tool in the tool box????

  2. dogdaz on

    Nice post thanks

  3. may on

    What a great article! My pup and I started from a compulsion training background and have found that it is so much more effective, fun and kind to clicker-treat train on so many different levels!

    My favorite go-home message of this blog entry is “the reward takes second place to the anticipation preceding it”

    I wasn’t familiar with the Write A Post, Help A Dog initiative. A good reason to start a blog!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Welcome to the Fearful Dogs Blog May. Thanks for your feedback and though many don’t need any reason to start a blog, getting some food to shelter dogs is a good one, go for it!

      • Maggi Boies on

        Wow, now I’m a believer, what a great post! You have inspired me to start a blog, thanks for the reminder. This was a treat to read, thanks. I better get going and beat the deadline. Wonderful to meet you today at lunch.

      • fearfuldogs on

        Ditto to meeting you as well Maggi! Thanks for reading and commenting and all the best to you in helping dogs in Utah enjoy a better life.

  4. Jen on

    I wonder about peoples’ resistance to food as well. Constantly.

  5. KellyK on

    I think the resistance is partly from our cultural obsession with weight and partly because people don’t get the complete picture of how reward-based training works.

    The weight obsession leads people to worry, more than they need to, about every morsel of food their dogs get. I’m not saying stuffing their faces with treats is a good idea, but if you’re feeding high-quality treats in bite-size portions, and you’re feeding an appropriate quantity of “regular” food for their weight and activity level, you’re probably not going to horribly overfeed the dog or make them fat. If you’re doing enough treat training that you think it’s a concern, you can reduce their meals by that amount, rather than avoiding food in training. (I’d also be willing to bet that there are almost *no* dogs in the shelter because they’re fat, while an awful lot of dogs are there because of training issues.)

    The second thing is, I think people see the really high rate of rewards you need to start off with and they think you’ll have to maintain that forever, or that you’ll never get a dog to do anything if you don’t have treats. They don’t realize that as you train, you up the criteria and reduce the rate of reward, phase in other rewards that make the dog happy, and try to make rewards less predictable.

    There may also be confusion between food *lures,* which are used to shape a behavior, and food *rewards.* If you don’t fade out the food lure, then seeing a treat remains part of the cue, and of course the dog isn’t going to perform without it, because they don’t know what you’re asking for.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Great points Kelly! Sometimes I just have to say ‘trust me’ and folks who do usually end up getting more of the behaviors they need and that’s a relief.

    • Susan Kennedy on

      Excellent point. I have one reactive dog that I have worked with for well over two years and use food as a lure of sorts for appropriate behavior. I have had fabulous success by following a well known trainer from Washington. Her method has been a godsend to me but I phased out treats almost completely and he’s doing incredibly well. Again, I do adjust his meal intake directly in line with his treat intake. I couldn’t agree more with you. Susan

  6. Lynn on

    I think that because some people see rewards as bribery, they believe it somehow makes them less of a trainer to use them. And some don’t understand the magic of high-value rewards. A friend teased me about using hot dogs and chicken to help my anxious dogs learn, because hers are “quite happy with a milk bone biscuit.” So I taught her wonderfully well-adjusted Lab to shake paws using the clicker and a few tiny bits of hot dog. Took about 3 minutes. She’d been trying to get him to do it for years …

    I write a foodie blog for a local mag, so I’ll gladly mention Write a Post, Help a Dog. Thank you for the info.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for sharing that Lynn and writing a post. Be sure to add it to the blog hop. It will get more visibility and get added to the count. Fabulous!

  7. Susan Kennedy on

    I don’t understand the thinking either about being reluctant to treat. I have two dogs in agility and a trainer who is the best of the best. She knows and understands the different personalities of all the dogs she trains. I have two that I bring together which she encourages and they could not be more different. One is completely motivated by praise. He often will turn his nose away from a treat but will occasionally take a bit. I use boiled beef heart cut in very small pieces. My other dog is very food/treat motivated although if I run out or forget, praise works well for him too but I know he would rather have his “goodie”. If you’re training with food, then just cut down on their meals equally. It all works out that way. I feed my dogs raw occasionally and cooked occasionally but rarely do they get canned food. Only if am out where I can’t cook for them. It has meat, veggies, brown rice, vitamins and is a very healthy food. Sometimes I add grated hard cooked egg for a little treat. But I watch their calorie intake which would apply for treats. Balance would be the key in my opinion. Just consider, every dog has his needs/preferen so find that and use that appropriately. Like I said, one loves praise, one loves treats.

    • fearfuldogs on

      If we can finagle our way into a dog’s brain’s reward system we can create training addicts! You are lucky to have found such a great trainer.

      • Susan Kennedy on

        I couldn’t agree more. She’s funny, serious, is quick to complement, catches the smallest nuances, gets to know your dog quickly. She’s the absolute best. I feel positively blessed to have found her. And she helps build agility courses for different venues so she sets up the courses so you can train for “real life” trials.

  8. Heather on

    I assist in classes and see this resistance too. I don’t get why people take the time for classes and seemingly get nowhere. Most seem worried their dog will get hooked on food.

    Our trainer makes me chuckle though as he’ll ask how long people would continue going to “the office” if their pay check was replaced by the boss “patting them on the head” and saying “good boy!” Or if there was no pay check at all. Some people shake loose with the treats after that.


  9. Kate on

    “Unconvinced the owner commented, “Of course she’s doing what you ask, you have food.””

    When people say this, or the, “they’re only doing it for the food!” I am SO tempted to say, “Well, yours are only doing it to avoid (whatever aversive they use) – what’s the difference?!” Seriously, I will NEVER understand why making animals avoid something horrible is seen as such superior training to getting them to work for something they want! I understand when people truly believe – usually due to dishonest trainer marketing – that it’s possible to get their dog (or horse, or whatever else) to work just “for them” – but once you are aware that this means using aversives and isn’t truly the dog doing everything you ask “just because I say so” – why is this seen as more “serious” “proper” training? Argh.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      It doesn’t make sense Kate. Even “if” one needed to keep food around to reinforce behaviors it would be easier for me than having to put a prong or shock collar on a dog, a far better for my blood pressure than shouting.

      • Kate on

        Exactly. And given the “you always have to have food on you every single time forever and ever” isn’t even true, but you DO have to punish (or at least have the threat of punishment there in some way – and able to be backed up if “needed”) every time for *that* to be effective… hmmm. Which one is the more practical, here? But all that aside, I would still far rather carry food around for the rest of my life if I had to, than use fear and pain.

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