Should You Use Food to Train Your Dog?

Is it a good idea to use food to train animals?  Some owners are wary of using food to train their dogs. Here are some of the most common objections, and some food for thought about each one.



My dog should do what I ask because he loves me/should just want to.


This is a lot to ask from anyone, particularly a dog. If this is your goal, you can actually use food to accomplish it.


Using food as positive reinforcement (R+) in training has all kinds of wonderful side effects. Doling out small, delectable treats your dog will eagerly work for makes you a predictor of good things arriving! Your dog associates your presence with the potential for earning R+. You become someone he wants to please because, when he does, wonderful things can happen. He gets delicious tidbits and positive attention.


And because dogs respond so well to reward-based training, his behavior will quickly improve  and you will enjoy being around him. The bond between you is strengthened through a positive feedback loop of mutual good experiences and feelings. Actually, this is how all trusting, loving relationships form.



My dog should do what I want because I am in charge.


Yes, and using food makes you a leader worth following!


Because wonderful things happen to your dog when he complies with your requests, your are someone worth paying attention to and responding to. Your dog wants to follow you. This automatically puts you “in charge.” No fear, coercion or intimidation required.



I don’t want to have to carry food around all the time to get my dog to listen to me.


That’s good, because you won’t need to.


You need to use a lot of R+ (food) in the early learning stages. Being too stingy with R+ is a common cause of ineffective training. But, being too generous with R+ as learning progresses is also ineffective. By beginning to selectively withhold R+, you encourage faster, more precise, more complex responses, which speeds the training process. And once the dog has thoroughly learned a new behavior, using R+ every once in a while is all that’s required to maintain the behavior over time.


You can also teach your dog to be motivated by other rewards, such as praise, petting, and play. Using a variety of R+ to maintain a behavior is even more effective than food alone. When you call your dog, he never knows if he’ll get an enthusiastic greeting, a treat, a quick game of tug, a chance to go outside, or sometimes nothing at all. But the strong potential for R+ will keep him responding time and time again.



Using food in training is bribing my dog to do what I want.


Bribe (/brīb/): to persuade someone to act in one’s favor, typically illegally or dishonestly, by a gift of money or other inducement.


It’s just not possible to bribe a dog.


But sometimes when people use food as R+, the presence of food becomes part of the cue for a behavior. If every time you ask your dog to “sit” you have a treat in your hand, your dog may not sit unless you’re holding a treat when you say “sit.” The treat is part of the “sit” cue. (Just like if you always stand in front of him when you ask him to sit, he may not if you ask while you’re standing behind him or lying on the sofa).


This isn’t bribery. It’s just incomplete training. The “sit” behavior isn’t under the control of the verbal “sit” cue. That’s an easy fix!


You can also use food as a lure to move a dog into a position or place. This isn’t bribery, either. It’s just a temporary, effective communication tool to help “explain” to your dog what you want him to do. Once he understands, remove the lure to prevent it from becoming a part of the cue.



Too many treats aren’t good for dogs.


True! And you have complete control over how many you give him.


You’ll be using a lot of treats during training, but each treat is very small. The tastier the treat, the smaller it can be. And because training works best in short sessions, the number of treats you’ll use may be smaller than you think.


If you’re not comfortable using treats, you can use part or even all of your dog’s daily ration for training. If you feed kibble and you are convinced your dog would never work for kibble, you can actually teach your dog to work for it.



Why use food to train? It works!

  • It’s a primary reinforcer, meaning your dog needs it to survive and is strongly motivated to work for it.
  • It has a host of wonderful side effects, like enhancing your leadership status, your bond, and how your dog feels about you.
  • You can use tiny bits of tasty treats or your dog’s regular food as reinforcement in training.
  • It’s convenient, readily available, and easily delivered during training.