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

Avoiding Using Food as “Bribery” with Your Dog

You can probably see the pitfall already: are you going to wind up with a dog who’ll only lie down when he’s following the treat in your hand? Many people call this situation “bribery”; it’s probably more accurate to say that the dog has learned to perceive the treat as part of the cue, or has learned that he never gets a reward of any kind unless he sees a treat up front. As a parenthesis, this problem doesn’t generally arise with clicker training. Most of the training tips in these articles are clicker-based. You can find out more about clicker training in the Resources section. 

How to Keep the Treat From Being Part of the Cue

To avoid having the treat be part of the cue, we do what’s called “fading the lure.” When you teach a behavior, use the treat to lure your dog only the first few times. The next time, make the luring gesture, but with your hand empty--then say “Yes” and deliver the treat with your other  hand. Ideally, you’re keeping the treats on a counter or elsewhere off your person.

When you fade the lure this way, you can gradually morph your luring movement into whatever hand cue you’d like to use. Or you can choose to lure a few times, then stay still and just wait to see what your dog does. Let’s stick with the example of teaching him to lie down. Since he’s just done that behavior several times and gotten rewarded, he’s likely to try it again. Give him a few moments to think. If he lies down all the way, immediately say “Yes” and deliver the treat. If he starts to go down hesitantly, catch the beginning of his downward movement, say “Yes,” and deliver the treat relatively low, so that he has to drop a little further to eat it. Then wait to see what he does next. Chances are good he’ll get the point this time.

Deliver the Treat Where You Want Your Dog to Be

If you’re teaching your dog to walk nicely on leash, deliver food rewards at your side, where you’d like her to be.

This brings up another important aspect of using food correctly. When you’re teaching your dog a certain position, she should be in that position, or on her way to it, when she gets the food. That’s because whatever position she’s in when she’s rewarded is the position she’s being rewarded for. If you’re teaching your dog to walk next to you on leash without pulling, deliver the food at your side where you’d like her to be. If you’re teaching her to lie down, deliver the food low and right to her mouth or between her forepaws, so she doesn’t even have to stretch up to get it. If she does start to get up, lure her back down with the food, then deliver it. For a more advanced learner, you can pull the food away and wait for her to lie back down on her own, then re-deliver the food.


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).