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

The setup would look pretty much the same as for counterconditioning, with your Scary Bearded Guy close enough for Dogalini to notice him, but not close enough to provoke a defensive response. Scary Bearded Guy would just stand there until Dogalini did anything at all that was nonaggressive--sniffed the ground, sat, turned her head away, or flicked an ear, say. You might then move Dogalini away. Or Scary Bearded Guy might move away himself. In either case, Dogalini’s appropriate behavior is rewarded not with food but by giving her something that’s probably more important to her in that moment--distance. Over time, Dogalini would learn that the way to get the reward of more distance from Scary Bearded Guys is to make nice to them. And, over time, making nice might start to come naturally--meaning, Dogalini wouldn’t be upset by bearded men anymore.

When to Use Food with Extra Care

I should also mention a couple of special cases where food works well but you need to use it a bit more thoughtfully than usual. Some dogs act like they’re on crystal meth around any food they especially like. They bark frantically, they jump, they mouth your hand. One fix is to use fairly boring food, like dry kibble. The dog’s still interested but not thrilled out of his mind, so he can concentrate on what you’re trying to teach him. Also, because he’s not going completely wild, you can use the boring food to teach him to take treats gently. Finally, of course, there are those handy non-food rewards, such as play and permission to go out.

Shy dogs also call for judicious use of food. Definitely reward any initiative they take to explore, but don’t lure them close to scary things by using treats.


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).