How to Train a Dog with Food Rewards

Dogs love food, so it makes a great training tool. Learn how to use it most effectively.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
6-minute read
Episode #58

To teach our dogs how to get along in human households, we need to fiddle with their natural behavior--which doesn’t include sitting to greet people or walking parallel to us on leash, for instance. The most efficient way to teach the behavior we like is to make sure that it gets our dogs what they like (for more on that, see my episode on Better Dog Training). I don’t need to tell you that food is Number 1 on most dogs’ hit parade. This week, how to use food rewards effectively and avoid common mistakes and problems.

How to Train a Dog with Food Rewards

Here’s the most important point: be generous. To us, what we’re trying to teach our dogs seems simple and reasonable. To our dogs, it’s not so simple and it’s often weird. Dogs have brains the size of lemons (1) and they like to roll in dead animals. They are not us! It’s hard for them to learn that the sounds coming out of our mouth in one context mean the same thing in a completely different context that offers many distractions. We make our lessons even more confusing when we’re not consistent in our choice of words for a cue, when we use different tones of voice, and when our body language varies from situation to situation.

Use Tiny Treats to Reward Your Dog

So when you see the behavior you like, deliver rewards fast and frequently. Use tiny bits--for my 75-pound Pit Bull mix, I use dry dog food and pieces of cheese and meat smaller than my pinky nail. For tiny dogs, use the smallest bits you can handle. Or try offering a lick of canned food. You’re building habits for a lifetime; the more generously you reward the behavior you like while you’re teaching it, the stronger your dog’s good habits will become.  

Lure–and-Reward Training

One popular form of dog-friendly training is called “lure and reward.” You’ve used lure and reward if you’ve taught your dog to lie down by putting a treat in front of his nose while he’s sitting, and then bringing the treat down to the ground. He follows the treat, winds up lying down, you say “Yes!” and instantly give him the treat, and that’s lure and reward.


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).