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

That goes for human strangers as well as for whatever inanimate objects worry your dog. It’s best if you reward your dog for sniffing or greeting the person. This is because some shy dogs will push themselves past their own comfort zone to get a treat and then snap defensively as soon as they’ve eaten it. Some people figure once they’ve given Dogalini a treat they’re BFF and can glom on to her--not the best outcome for a dog who’s not 100 percent sure she feels safe with new humans.

How to Tell If You Shouldn’t Use Food Rewards with Your Dog

Last, a few dogs respond aggressively when you withhold a food reward. This isn’t common among pet dogs, but if it does happen you should stop training with food for the time being. Here’s an example: I was working with a dog, teaching him polite food bowl manners. It’s easy for most dogs--you ask the dog for a sit or down, then lower the food bowl to the floor. If the dog gets up, the food bowl goes back up too. As soon as the dog sits or lies down again, the food bowl starts heading for the floor.

Almost all pet dogs sail through this lesson, learning after just a few repetitions that the way to get the bowl is to avoid mugging it or you. But the dog I’m thinking of growled at me the second time he broke his sit and I brought the bowl back up. So much for training him with food! A dog who responds aggressively when you withhold a food reward needs to learn frustration tolerance in food-free contexts--for instance, we might start by teaching him to sit briefly before he goes out an open door.

To train most effectively with rewards, food or other, all you really have to do is pay attention to your dog! See what he wants and will work for, be sure that he’s at ease, and then arrange for him to get what he wants in exchange for doing something you like. And that’s about it for today. You can follow The Dog Trainer on Twitter, where I’m Dogalini, as well as on Facebook, and write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and I may use them as the basis for future articles.Thank you for reading!

Image courtesy of 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).