Food for Thought: Hungry Dogs and Training

Almost all trainers think that when you’re using food rewards, it’s best to start with a hungry dog. But a new study suggests that isn’t always true. Sometimes, it might be best to give your dog a good breakfast before he starts work.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #204

Sometimes, a Little Hunger Might Still Be Best

On the other hand, there might be times when it’s more important for a dog to really, really want the food you’ve got than it is for her to maximize her brainpower. I train in New York City, where we usually can’t control a dog’s environment for purposes of behavior modification. In that context, it’s often crucial to be able to just plain distract a dog from something she might be frightened of or aggress toward. A little bit of hunger might be to our advantage then.

See also “Counterconditioning”


I’ve also found it useful to set aside at least some of a newly adopted dog’s daily food for rewards given throughout the day. The idea is that the more often I can catch the dog and reward her for doing something I like, whether that’s choosing to lie down on her bed or keeping quiet when the doorbell rings, the more quickly she can learn the rules of her new home. (And also learn how to go about getting what she wants in life, as I described in a recent episode about giving dogs control.) How can I balance eagerness for food against the need to keep a thinking animal’s brain consistently fueled? Miller and Bender suggest that working dogs might benefit from snacking over the course of the day, so maybe my approach doesn’t need too much tweaking after all. Phew.

One other point. The dogs in the breakfast study were all known to be motivated by food rewards. Well, most dogs do like to eat – otherwise I wouldn’t hear so many human complaints about disappearing sandwiches. But some get less worked up about food than others. For dogs who need a little more motivation to work for food, training before meals might be best even if there’s a tradeoff in cognitive strength. (You can use non-food rewards such as play, of course, but nothing beats food for the number of reps you can get in the training time available.)

There’s a lot to think about here. (I think I’d better have a biscuit.) But I’m pretty sure I just got  a little less quick to suggest my clients train when their dogs are hungry. If you run an informal experiment with your own dog, I’d love to hear about it.

 Dog Eating Breakfast image from Shutterstock


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).