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

What to Do If Your Dog Isn’t Motivated by Food

Fairly often, we trainers hear from a client that his or her dog isn’t motivated by food. Assuming the dog is healthy, four common reasons account for most of these situations.

#1: The dog has food in her bowl all day long. If that’s your dog, feed separate meals instead. Pick up any uneaten food after 15 minutes. Training with food isn’t about keeping your dog hungry, but food does lose value if she never feels even a little bit peckish.

#2: The dog is anxious. This often comes up with undersocialized dogs working outdoors--when I meet them I find they pull frantically on leash, their tails are tucked, their ears are down, and when their person offers food they let it fall out of their mouth. Training needs to happen in an environment that doesn’t scare the dog; as for outdoors, we have to alleviate the anxiety before the dog can learn.

#3: The dog is too distracted to eat in the training situation. Dog sees squirrel, dog fixates on squirrel, owner tries to distract dog with a food treat, dog appears completely unaware of food treat. This dog needs more practice in non-distracting situations. And we may need to find a way to use the distractor itself as a reward.

#4: Your dog doesn’t like the treat. There seems to be a lot of wishful thinking out there regarding what dogs like. “He loves sliced apple,” for instance. And some do. For most dogs, though, break out the meaty-cheesy-fishy-smelly if you want their full attention. That goes double if you’re teaching them to leave the pot roast alone. Who are you kidding with the dry biscuits, there?

When Can You Stop Using Food?

Clients often ask: “When can I stop using food?” When your dog responds to a given cue at least 90 percent of the time in different contexts, you can start making your food rewards random and less frequent. But stay generous. Reward sometimes with food, sometimes with play, sometimes with the chance to go back and do more of whatever he was doing when you called him, sometimes with butt scritches. These are all ways of thanking your dog. People often fetishize this idea that dogs should do our bidding just because. That’s a trap. In any good relationship, reciprocity’s the name of the game. The same goes for good training.

Find The Dog Trainer on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m Dogalini. You can also email me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I respond to as many questions as I can, and I may use your comments as the basis of future articles. That’s all for this week. Go get some chicken shreds and teach your dog a trick!


In clicker training, you teach your dog that the sound of an inexpensive toy clicker means a reward, usually food, is on its way. Then you use the click sound to “mark” behavior you like. Because I want my readers to be able to start training right away without having to go get any equipment, I use a “Yes” in place of the click, but using an actual clicker has real advantages – for example, the sound is distinctive and consistent. When I’m working with clients in person, we almost always clicker train.

My basic guide to clicker training is posted in the Notes section on The Dog Trainer’s Facebook page. You can also learn more about clicker training for free at these websites: www.clickertraining.com and www.clickersolutions.com. My two favorite guides to clicker training are Pat Miller’s The Power of Positive Dog Training and Melissa Alexander’s Click for Joy. Both are available at www.dogwise.com.



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).