The Advantages of Training with Food Treats

Why is it good to train your dog with treats? Are you bribing your dog when you train with treats?

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #154

The Advantages of Training with Food Treats

In an earlier article, I explained in detail what makes punishment-based training inefficient and problematic. This week, I’ll explain three advantages of using food and other rewards in training. And, yes, there are a couple of disadvantages.

First, let’s get real. Your dog has no reason of his own to stay in place when you ask him to stay, or to leave your roast beef sandwich alone, or to walk next to you on leash instead of pulling. What’s in it for him? Usually nothing. Should he do what you say because he loves you? Dogs’ behavior and brain structures make it probable that they experience emotions a lot like ours, and I firmly believe that our dogs love us in their own simple-minded way. But the ability to make abstract connections is another story. It’s a big, big stretch to imagine that our dogs could understand that we want them to hold a down-stay as an expression of love. They have butt wiggles and eye squints for that.

So if we want to teach our dogs anything – tricks, good manners, where to pee and poop – we have to supply the motivator.

Barring sickness or great stress, most dogs will work for food most of the time.

Advantage #1: Food is Reliably Motivating

Dogs are scavenging animals who evolved from predators. Their big survival strategy is to eat whatever’s available whenever they can. Few dogs are interested in food all the time – they do fill up! -- and some dogs will work harder for a chance to play or hunt than they will for food, but barring sickness or great stress, most dogs will work for food most of the time.

Advantage #2: You Have to Feed Your Dog Anyway

Admittedly, sometimes it’s most convenient to put the dog food in a bowl and be done with it. But what a waste to do that with every meal! Put some of the food in puzzle toys to keep your dog busy (especially if she’s a puppy) and exploit the rest to help yourself teach her lovely manners. Yes, you may need something more deluxe for special situations like coming when called or turning away from a sidewalk chicken-bone buffet. But for routine daily practice, a high-quality dry dog food works just fine. You can jazz it up if you want, with a sprinkle of liver powder or cheap pre-grated Parmesan cheese.

Bonus: When you use Dogalini’s regular food for training, you don’t need to worry about throwing off her nutritional balance.

Advantage #3: Food Makes a Good Impression

Well, all reward-based training makes a good impression, whether you’re using food, play, enjoyable scritches, or the chance to go for a walk. As for training in general, one side effect is that the dog perceives you as relevant and important – you’re a source of something that matters to dogs. If you rely on punishment, the “something that matters” is unpleasant. Your dog will pay attention, but with an element of anxiety or uncertainty, trying to avoid that something unpleasant.

If you set your dog up to succeed and then reward that success, then you’re a source of enjoyment to your dog. You’re dependable and safe; hanging around with you and looking for your cues is a matter of eager anticipation of Good Stuff rather than relieved avoidance of … whatever.

Reward-based training is a lot more fun for people, too.

So what are the disadvantages of using food rewards?

Disadvantage #1: You Have to Carry Treats with You

Sure, you often have plenty of non-food rewards available: scratches, the chance to sniff a tempting fire hydrant or greet a friend, praise. And at home you can always smack yourself in the forehead and re-start your training session after getting a handful of kibbles out of the bag. But when you’re outdoors teaching a behavior such as polite leash walking, which must be rewarded at a super-high rate in the early stages, you’re pretty much sunk for a given training session if you forget your treats.

There’s only one way to put this: Too bad. Whether the student is a child or a dog, teachers need to be mindful and to plan. Get in the habit of keeping a bag of treats in the fridge and put it in your jacket pocket or treat pouch on your way out the door. Honestly, it’s not hard.

Disadvantage #2: The Trap of “Food Up Front”

Some people who use food rewards find that their dog won’t perform on cue unless she sees the food up front. They’re left feeling as if they have to bribe their dogs. This is the result of a simple technical mistake that many beginners fall into, and it’s usually easy to undo. Here’s what has happened:

Say you’re teaching your dog to lie down, and you use a piece of food to do it. You hold the food in front of her nose and then bring your hand down to the ground. Dogalini’s nose, and then her whole body, follow the food, and when she hits the ground she gets the treat. So far, so good – you’re using the tried-and-true dog-friendly training method called “lure and reward.”

But maybe it would help to rename the method “lure, reward, then lose the lure ASAP.” Back to our example: Once you’ve done a couple of reps using your food lure, do a rep with the same luring gesture but with no food in that hand. When your dog hits the ground, deliver her treat from your other hand, or from a nearby stash. (To teach successfully, you need to plan, remember?) Now your dog will not expect that she can only ever get a reward if she sees it before you ask her to do anything.

Although you’re making sure not to show your dog the treat up front, you should give her a treat for each and every successful performance when she’s learning a new behavior. As she comes to understand what’s expected under varied circumstances and in varied locations, save the food rewards for her best responses. These might be the fastest responses or the ones she gives you in spite of big-time distractions. Keep the treats in your pocket or in a treat pouch – sure, she’ll know they’re there, but that’s no guarantee she’ll get them.

Generosity Is Good Training

Professionals teaching difficult behaviors think in terms of thousands of practice reps. Yes, I know, that’s a bit … daunting. Here’s what to take away from it: Don’t worry about rewarding your dog “too much.” Frequent rewards are good training practice. They help make it fun for your dog to do as you ask. Last but not least, your generosity will pay off the day your dog turns on a dime to come when you call him, and never mind that deer headed for the next county.

Check out this article for more tips on how to use food as an effective training tool. You can follow The Dog Trainer on Twitter, where I’m Dogalini. I’m The Dog Trainer on Facebook, and you can also write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. Though I usually can’t reply personally, I welcome your comments and suggestions. And you can find lots more helpful ideas in my book, The Dog Trainer’s Complete Guide to a Happy, Well-Behaved Pet. Thanks for reading!

Yorkshire Terrier 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).