The Skinny on Using Food in Training

The reluctance and poor tolerance toward the use of food in dog training is not new, or even surprising, but the understanding of its application as a consequence to behaviour, in teaching, is consistently poor.

The fascinating aspect of this reluctance to use food, is that food rewards are generally held to higher standards than other consequences to behaviour, in teaching.
We start talking about fading food, before we even get started, and we presume that it’s going to heroically and miraculously fix all ills, so we abandon it, when it doesn’t…“once he sees <insert distraction here> he won’t even look at the treats”…why would he? What training have you done to proof behaviours in the face of such distractions?

It’s almost as if food were not the problem…!

Food is a contentious training tool, and like any tool there are pros and cons, but, except maybe for shock collars, not much rivals food-use for controversy.

We’ve talked about rewarding behaviour before: Pay the Dog

And discussed the care required with food’s use: Fat Dogs & Food Trainers

The Bottom Line

If you want behaviour, you gotta reinforce it; to reinforce is specific, meaning to strengthen behaviour, increasing its frequency.

The behaviours you want your dog to do, are so often not what the dog would choose (if he could), so we gotta make it worth their while.

Think of the reinforcement account you have built for behaviours that you like (polite greeting behaviour, walking nicely on lead, coming when called from distractions, settling calmly while you are busy and so on)…how consistent are these behaviours?
How healthy your account balance is, will depend on how much reinforcement you have in there…

Think of the consistency of behaviours that you don’t like – jumping up, barking, pulling on lead, not coming back and so on…that’s how healthy those reinforcement accounts are.

Five year old, “food trained” all the time – doesn’t beg, doesn’t steal food, doesn’t need food in everyday life for maintenance of established behaviours, switches between food, play, interaction and sniffing in all training sessions, not overweight, healthy. Maybe food’s not the problem…

I get it. Most average pet owners want a quick fix formula, and that’s ok; you don’t need to be a behaviour-nerd to train your pet dog. But, it does mean that you will need serious help with filling those reinforcement accounts.
With good management, and quick teaching of replacement and desirable behaviours, we can limit the effects of unwanted behaviour relatively fast.

That’s where food comes in. When you come to training class, we’re going to use food and lots of it. That’s one hour per week to ensure your dog’s behaviour in the tricky class environment is better managed, and you and the dog are set up for success.

We are using a high rate of reinforcement (ROR) when teaching behaviour. That’s how behaviour becomes learned, and fast. Food allows for that.

Developing the skill to use food and other consequences of behaviour may not be what you want, and that’s fine. But, using food is probably the quickest, most efficient way to get behaviour you like – with a little care it can be pretty powerful.

You will develop relationship, as a side-effect, and that makes it easier to reduce training prompts.

Put the work in NOW, today, and when you can reliably predict behaviour in relevant contexts, you can reduce the food if you must, switching to other reinforcers to maintain behaviour.

If you are complaining about your dog’s behaviour, there are two places to look (and not one of them is your dog!): the environment (what’s happening around the dog that allows him to carry out behaviour you don’t like), and reinforcement history (the health of those reinforcement accounts) – all down to you. Neither food, or your dog’s to blame!

Change your mindset and catch your dog doing the right thing – look for behaviour you like, rather than waiting for behaviour you don’t like.
Carry a little bag of your dog’s regular food in your pocket or have little pots of it dotted around the house for quick reinforcing. It’s really not that tricky, and it’s better that your dog work for some of that food than get it for free from a food bowl.


You don’t necessarily need to use food forever, although that’s not the worst thing in the world either.
Why do we lament a continuous schedule of reinforcement when food is involved? Especially when we (apparently) happily continue to pull the dog around on the lead, scold them verbally (and otherwise), coerce and intimidate them – this is continuous use of potentially harmful consequences to behaviour, the fallout of which may be greater than use of food.

So, before you moan that you need to use food to train your dog, consider your dog’s behaviour and its consistency as having a reinforcement account and fill it…bring it back into the black. If you are currently moaning about your dog’s behaviour, the desired behaviour’s reinforcement accounts are probably in the red, and only getting redder…


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