When Not to Give Your Dog Food Rewards

Learn how to tell when food isn’t the best reward for your dog.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
4-minute read
Episode #83

I’m all about training dogs by setting them up to do the behaviors that we like, and then rewarding them for it. Most of the time, for most dogs, the most valuable reward is tiny bits of food, and most of the time, for most kinds of training, food is also most useful and convenient. But … not always.

In several fairly common situations, food doesn’t give you the best leverage for teaching the behavior you want.

When Not to Give Your Dog Food Rewards

In the moment, your dog might want something else more than he wants food. Whatever that something is, try to find a way to use it as a reward. Suppose you’re teaching polite leash walking, for instance. That upcoming fire hydrant may be a lot more compelling than your pocket full of kibble, especially if your dog’s not hungry at the moment and the hydrant’s just been marked by the newest dog to move in down the block. In that case, permission to go sniff is the best way to reward your dog for a glance at you or for walking next to you instead of pulling forward.

Or you might want to teach your fetch-crazy dog to sit instead of jumping on you or barking at you to get you to throw the ball again. Food is pretty much beside the point! Dogalini isn’t interested in your stinking biscuits; she wants to chase that ball.  Ask her to sit. The second her butt hits the ground, throw.

Your Dog May Want Something Scary to Go Away

Sometimes the best reward for your dog is to make something worrisome go away.

Nonfood rewards also work best in some kinds of behavior modification. One standard procedure, counterconditioning and desensitization, works by turning problem stimuli into reliable predictors of superdeluxe treats. Say, for example, Zippy is mildly anxious about men with beards; you might deal with this problem by asking a bearded friend to walk by just far enough away that Zippy notices him, but not so close that Zip shows signs of stress. Each time the man walks past, you feed Zippy a piece of chicken. The bearded man predicts chicken, so the bearded man is good news.

But a couple of alternative approaches to fear and aggression instead leverage the insight that what a dog wants most is for the problem stimulus to be far, far away.


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).