A lot of people I meet are concerned about using food treats in training.
When the dog is performing well, they’ll say, “he’s just doing it for the treats,” or, “she’ll do anything for food!”
When it boils down to it, there are two motivations in dog training – the dog is either working to receive something or working to avoid something.
There is then a spectrum of value on either side. For most dogs, food treats are of high value compared to say, verbal praise or pats.
The other advantage of a food treat is that you can be more precise in timing the treat to be a clear reward for a specific moment in time, especially using marker training.
Not many dogs will work for praise only when they have no prior experience with the command.
When they’re experienced with the command through training with a higher value reward such as food, they can be gradually weaned to praise only. But when you’re starting from scratch you need a way to show the dog what to do and how to move their body.
There are usually two options for this: show the dog where to move their head by following a treat or physically move the dog into position. You can also do a combination of the two. For most dogs, receiving a reward as part of the process and not being shoved around is a lot more motivating.
The next step is to ensure the food reward happens as a reward, not a bribe.
The dog may initially learn the movement by following the treat but next, you want to create the behaviour to happen first, then present the reward second.
In this way the food can truly be a reward rather than a bribe, and can be reduced to a sometimes thing, rather than a necessity.
Every time we interact with our dogs they are learning from us – for better or worse. And every time we provide them with a resource such as their daily meals, we have an opportunity to use it as a reward or as a job to keep them occupied. This article is to help you get the most out of the food you’re already feeding.
When I meet someone and their dog for the first time, I always ask about the dog’s diet. This is because diet affects behaviour, just like it does for us. But it’s not just about what the dog is eating, but how.
The first thing we eliminate is free feeding. Allowing dogs to graze has some serious downsides, especially in relation to training. Being able to use food as a reward in training is a great advantage and free feeding can cause dogs to become fussy with their food and full all the time.
A dog should eat what is provided by the owner and hold a value for that food. If it’s sitting out to graze on all the time, that value decreases.
So no matter what time you feed your dog, when he or she walks off away from the bowl and leaves food in it, pick it up and put it away until the next meal.
Food For Pay
The other thing you can do with a dog’s normal food is use it as a training reward. This will only work well if the dog is actually hungry so train before meals, not after.
We hear all the time how dogs need both mental stimulation an exercise. As well as physical exercise for their jaws, food puzzle toys help keep the mind busy and once finished, the dog is often tired and ready for a snooze. This is a great solution for busy people and to keep your dog occupied while you’re at work.
One of the best kinds of food toys are Kongs. When I first recommend using these I often hear things like, “We tried a Kong and our dog just left the food in there,” or, “She had the food out in 2 seconds and it was over.”
The key with Kongs or the like, is that the dog needs to be hungry and the food needs to be really stuck in there. You can do this by using sticky mince as a sort of glue for the food or use mince or stock and freeze it inside the Kong with any other food mixed in as well. Dry food on it’s own will fall out too fast. Once the food is in there firmly, it becomes a challenge and requires real work from the dog to get it out. But why would a dog bother to do all that work if they’re not hungry?
One of the biggest mistakes people make that causes them to think their dog doesn’t like Kongs is that they feed the dog breakfast out of a bowl and then give the dog a Kong. The dog is already full and can’t be bothered. Instead, the Kong should BE the breakfast! This way, it’s way more worth it to the dog to put in all that effort, keeping them occupied and quiet and stopping them chewing your furniture.
There’s so many benefits to feeding this way and all it takes is five minutes to stuff the Kong with food and freeze it the night before.
We fill our Kongs with the nutritious Raw4Paws from Debbie at Raw Fur Sure at Bargara – look her up!
When you think about a wild dog, they really do have to work for their food whether they hunt for it or scavenge for it. They don’t have it so easy as a meal in a bowl. If your dog had to work at least somewhat for every meal, they could be much calmer and more satisfied from fulfilling their instincts this way. You really don’t even need to feed from a bowl again.
For most people, their dogs seem like they’re always ready to eat – anything, anytime. If it’s food, the dog wants it.
But for others, they are constantly trying to convince their dog to eat like a parent with a toddler refusing to eat their broccoli.
For some people it has been a constant source of stress from day one with the new puppy. She didn’t eat on day one and the owners got worried and tried to make the food more appealing again and again until the point the dog won’t eat unless she’s in a highchair at the table being hand fed fresh roast chicken and gravy that must be precisely 48 degrees celsius and served on a ceramic plate.
So why are some dogs so fussy? And why should we care?
Why should you care if your dog is fussy?
It’s only natural that some dogs are more food motivated than others, so why should you care if you have a fussy dog? From a behaviour perspective, there’s two main reasons that I wouldn’t want a dog to be overly fussy. These are:
1. As the owner I get to choose what I’m feeding my dog. I will choose the healthiest option I can and then I want the dog to eat it. End of story. I don’t want my job to become a constant challenge of searching for food my dog will eat today.
2. Training with food is useful and I want to be able to use it. For this to work, the dog needs to be motivated for the food ie hungry for it.
Dogs That Are Taught To Be Fussy
(aka dogs that are teaching their owners to feed them tastier food)
Fussy eating is most often a learned behaviour. This is a common problem I see and this is how it usually happens:
The day the owner brings home their new puppy or recently adopted dog, the dog isn’t keen to eat what is presented to them. They turn their nose up at what is offered. The owner leaves the food out for them just in case they get hungry later.
Later, the dog still hasn’t eaten and the owner begins to worry. The dog must eat! Some owners are so concerned that the dog must be sick or that the dog is starving itself. As their concern takes over, they try to offer the dog something more appealing. Wet the food, put gravy on it, try chicken. Each time the dog refuses food, they try something tastier until the dog finally eats!
The dog has just learned a lasting lesson: if you refuse food, better food will come. I’ll hold out until I get something better. The dog has trained the owner!
Why did the puppy or dog not eat the first time then? Usually when a dog is settling into a new home they’ve gone through quite the change, they’re a bit stressed, or just too overwhelmed or distracted to worry about eating so much. Within a few days, they’ll settle into their normal eating patterns.
Are Some Dogs Born With Less Motivation For Food?
Some dogs just aren’t as food driven as other dogs – for example, a sighthound may be less food crazy than a labrador. This doesn’t mean that they need special diets or effort to get them to eat though. And it definitely doesn’t mean that you can’t increase their motivation for food or train them using treats.
While you may never expect your dog to be as food crazy as the neighbour’s Lab, you can improve the food drive of just about any dog if you so desire.
How to Increase A Dog’s Food Drive
When it comes down to it, all animals need to eat.
If you don’t eat, you don’t poop, and if you don’t poop, you die.
Increasing food drive may start with making the dog hungrier, aka feeding them less. The biggest struggle here is people feeling bad or worrying that feeding their dog less is going to instantly starve their dog to death.
I have yet to meet a dog that couldn’t be taught to have a stronger motivation for food if the owner complies. The ONLY time I have not been able to increase a dog’s food drive is when the owner just can’t bring themselves to stop giving the dog free treats and leaving food out for them just in case they get peckish.
But Won’t He Be Hungry??
Yes. That’s the point.
This is how you cure fussiness and stop having to bend over backwards trying to get your dog to eat.
Plus, being able to use food as a reward makes training easier. If all we have to do is make sure the dog isn’t being overfed or spoiled to achieve this, why wouldn’t we?
Most pet dogs are overfed and overweight too. It’s healthier for a dog to be lean and to work for their food. Your dog will actually live longer and be happier if they’re using their brains to work for food through training or enrichment activities.
How It Looks In Reality
If you need to make your dog hungrier (and therefore less fussy), how is that going to look? It depends how much food they’re currently eating, what kind of diet it is and whether your dog also needs to lose weight or not.
For some dogs the only thing that needs to be changed is to stop leaving food down for free feeding and only feed at set times. For other dogs, a reduction in quantity of meals is required, or switching from 2 meals per day to one.
If you’re training with food, you can train with the dog’s morning meal instead of giving it to the dog in a bowl and then give nothing else until the next meal. The quantity may be the same, but is fed through the dog working for it and learning at the same time.
As always, take into account the entire daily intake of food. Many people make the mistake of feeding meals in bowls and then adding in chews, treats and bones and thinking it doesn’t count towards the entire daily intake. Everything your dog ingests counts! This includes dental chews and pigs ears, in fact these common extras like pig ears are usually high in fat content and filling!
What To Do At Feeding Times
If you put down your dog’s meal and they turn their nose up at it or sniff it and walk away, immediately pick the food back up and put it away. Offer it again ten minutes later and do the same thing but this time, it’s put away until the next meal with no extras in between!
I once had someone tell me her dog was extremely fussy and I suggested this strategy. She said she’d tried it for days and it didn’t work, the dog didn’t eat for days! Well it turns out the dog did eat – it was being fed shortbread biscuits by another family member the entire time, but no one really thought that would count. They still got worried that the dog didn’t eat it’s dog food and gave in once again to offering more enticing foods.
As the dog’s owner, you can decide what the dog is fed and how much. If you need to make a switch from your dog being so fussy that you change to a more appealing food, to giving the dog whatever you decide, you need to be more persistent than the dog. You need to be firm with your decision! A dog can go three days without eating and then they will give in if you’re consistent.
If you need reassurance that your dog won’t die, think about this: dogs are descendant from wolves. All dog species can live in the wild and survive by scavenging and hunting (working for their food). They are adapted to only getting a meal here and there – no set times and sometimes days between food. Your dog is still living a lavish life in comparison and no healthy dog will let themselves starve.
Remember, making the change is healthier for your dog in the long run. A few days of being hungrier will be worth it long term and over time, your dog will learn to appreciate their food.
Disclaimer: Hopefully it doesn’t need to be said, but if your dog suddenly goes off their food and it is unusual, take them to the vet.
Hey, it’s Tenille here from Dog Matters. Today I want to talk to you about how much you’re feeding your dog and what this has to do with training. Oftentimes, we’re training using food rewards. So that’s the first thing. A lot of people say to me, “It’s all right, you don’t need to worry about skipping my dog’s meal, because they’re a pig and they’ll eat anything you offer to them.” But there is a difference between a dog that will just take what’s offered to them for free and a dog that’ll actually put in effort and work for that food. Now, for a dog to put in effort and work for the food, it has to actually be hungry.
A lot of the times when I’m seeing dogs and we need to train them and get their motivation up, they’re just not hungry enough, and this comes from being overfed. Actually, the majority of dogs, I think, in western society are overfed. I just wanted to show you today quickly how much I feed my three dogs per day. I’ve got two large medium dogs and one small dog. Each day they eat about two kilos total between the three of them of raw food. Today it’s Raw 4 Paws, about two kilos in there. What often happens is, people forget that extras count for that dog’s daily intake. So what happens is, if you are feeding your dog a cup of dry food in the morning and a bone to keep them busy, that bone is like a second meal. Now, a lot of dogs will just pick the bone and leave the dry food and people are wondering why their dog’s being so fussy. But the dog is just picking the better option of the two and doesn’t need any more, because that bone is a full meal.
So before you know it, not only is your dog getting their normal daily intake of food, but they’re getting maybe some bones on top to make sure that they have something to do, maybe some Kong toys stuffed with food as well, plus some biscuits left out just in case. Then maybe you do some training with them that day and they’re doing really well, or learning something new, and getting a lot of treats, and they’re getting a lot more than they’re supposed to get each day. So it’s the total daily amount that counts. It’s like if you’re having three healthy meals a day, trying to keep your weight down or lose weight, and you’re wondering why you’re putting weight on, but you just so happen to be having a lot of maybe not so healthy snacks in between your meals and somehow thinking that it doesn’t really count. Aah! I just don’t understand why this is happening! What?
A good way to make sure that your dog isn’t being overfed, is to provide their daily intake meals, so if they get breakfast, put it inside something like a Kong toy. A lot of people get these toys to keep their dog occupied and then wonder why the dog doesn’t put any effort into getting the food out of it. But the key is that you don’t feed them breakfast and then give them this. You put their breakfast inside this. They’re not going to put effort into getting food out of something that’s a bit challenging, if they’re already full. This is great way to keep your dog occupied with something that lasts a bit longer than just eating out of bowl, while at the same time not overfeeding your dog.
Then, on top of that, if you’re doing training as well, keep an eye on how many treats you’re using. If your dog will work for the same food that they eat as their daily meal, use that. Be aware of how much you’re putting into your treat bag before you start training, and then deduct that out of your dog’s meal that day. If that’s the whole meal then they don’t need to eat out of a bowl that day, and that is okay. You should aim to keep your dog lean with an obvious tuck in behind the ribcage at the waist. I hope you’ve enjoyed this video tip today. I’m Tenille from Dog Matters, and I’ll see you in this next video.
“Train dog without food treats”, is this even possible? Will my dog follow my command without a treat?
Training a dog with food treats is often seen as bribery and so many owners are wary of using treats in training…
This usually comes from the concern that if the dog is trained using food, it will only obey when the food is present. This is a valid concern – not because training with food is bad but because a lot of people don’t know how to phase the food out, and the dog becomes reliant on it. I actually train with food all the time and I love it! But I do see clients that struggle to wean their dog’s off the food and have the dog obey when the treat isn’t around.
Think of food treats like any tool used in training. We use it to help us to train the dog. Once the dog is trained in that skill, we no longer need it. What else counts as a tool?
How about the collar and leash – many that train without food use leash pressure.
How about your hands? Many people use their hands to physically put the dog into the position they want.
How about your house or back yard? We train in these areas before we risk letting our dog off lead in a public location. So even this is a training tool.
How about your voice? If you praise your dog for a job well done, your verbal praise is your reward tool in that situation.
All of these are valid tools to use in various situations depending on the dog, the owner and the circumstances. So don’t rule out the use of food completely. If you’re using food or any other training tool, think of it like training wheels – they help the dog learn and then come off when the dog has mastered the skill you’re training.
Why I DO Like To Use Food In Training
Like I mentioned, I do train with food often. I also use praise, touch, leash, collar, pressure and release, access to resources… You get the gist. I adapt to each dog and situation.
Food is an easy reward tool to use to teach new behaviours. You can have the dog follow the food around like a lure to move their body into the position you want (such as upwards and over their head to teach the sit position). After luring, we then reward with food only AFTER the dog has performed the skill we want. Training this way is fun for the dog and has them use their brain to figure out how to get the food rather than just being plonked into position.
So food is one tool that is a good option to teach new skills like obedience commands.
Training VS Manners
Now one thing I need to point out is that there is a difference between training a dog to DO something and having day to day manners around the home. The two definitely go hand in hand, however. You should definitely have a good foundation of obedience training to expect good manners around the home. But whether you train obedience commands with food or without, when it comes to manners around the home, you shouldn’t have to carry around cookies with you all day. And that’s where training without food is especially useful.
But I Don’t Want To Train With Food Ever At All
If you want to train without food treats at all, I encourage you to find something else that really motivates your dog that you can use as a reward through training. This can be a tug toy, a ball, a pat, praise or whatever your particular dog finds worth working for.
A reward depends on the individual dog. The dog has to want it to put in any effort for it. What a dog wants varies from dog to dog. Even if you’re using food, some dogs will work for kibble and others need something more appealing.
I don’t encourage you to train without any motivational reward at all. This means you would physically make the dog do the action and really, it’s no fun. I really believe training should be fun for both of you!
Ask yourself why you are feeling so against the use of food – is it because you believe your dog should work to please you? Are you worried about it being bribery? If you’re worried about it being a bribe, it’s all in how you use it. Remember, the top international champions in dog sports use lots of food in training but still get amazing results in the trial without a treat on them.
Thinking of rewards as a whole, think of it as payment. You may expect more of your worker (your dog) the more they learn but no one wants to work for someone just to please their boss.
Technically, there’s always some reason a dog does something other than “just to please you.” They either do it because they see something to gain from it, or they do it because the consequence of not doing it is worth avoiding.
How To Get Your Dog To Be Well Mannered Around The Home Without Food
So I think I’ve made my point. I’m a fan of using rewards in training, including food. But when it comes to manners around the house, there’s a whole lot you can achieve without food. Instead, you’re going to be using life rewards. This way, you can teach your dog that there is a rewarding benefit of listening to you in day to day life without setting up a training session or carrying around a toy or a treat.
What’s a Life Reward?
Think about all the things you do for your dog. All the things you give them, provide to them.
Let’s list them out.
Meals and other food
Shelter from the elements
Love and physical affection
Access to rooms of the house
Access to you
Walks and outings
Access to the bed or other comfy furniture
A nice bed to sleep on of their own
Enrichment in their backyard – things to keep them busy
Look how much we give them for free! You can use just about any of these things as a reward for your dog in return for them cooperating with you.
For example – let’s say you have a dog that likes to sit on the couch with you, or on your lap. Why should a dog be able to help himself to that? In fact, the more freedom a dog gets, the more they can become bratty and disobedient.
Instead of allowing your dog to jump up onto the couch whenever he or she likes, try giving a simple command before then inviting the dog up. Make this the new rule for this privilege. Now see where else you can apply this in your day to day life with your dog.
Does your dog drag you through the door when leaving for a walk?
Barge through doorways going in and out?
Have food and toys laying around for whenever they feel like it?
Try adding some rules like a simple command before privileges and resources. This achieves two things:
Your dog respects that you are the provider and carer, aka “the leader”
You get to practice your obedience commands and your dog listening to you without setting aside large blocks of time to practice and without using food rewards all the time
So now you’ve read this far, you have homework! Look for opportunities that you can use life rewards with your dog and start asking more from your dog in return for all the things you give them.
Of course, to get a command happening before privileges and resources, your dog needs to know the command. This is where you need to teach the command separately first and then start using it in the way I just described. If your dog doesn’t know many commands, start with a simple sit and use that first. Then try adding a down command later. The more your dog knows, the more you can mix it up.
Want to know more about how to use this concept and see fast changes in your dog’s manners?
“Holy cow – it worked!! I decided to try one of your tips this morning. I got all three of my dogs to sit AND stay until I stepped over the threshold of our outside door. They didn’t move until I released them! That has only ever happened if I’ve held a treat out for them to see (and it’s always a contest to see who will break first). This was with only the “treat” of going outside! WOW!!
Coming inside was a bit more work, until I actually opened the door (ie showed them the reward). Then – boom – all butts stayed on the ground! And I actually had the privilege of walking in our front door without a flood of dogs underneath my feet!!
One of the first questions I ask my dog-training clients is what’s their dog’s diet. what do they feed their dog. Some people may wonder why I ask this, or how it relates to my job as a dog trainer and behaviour consultant.
Diet can have a massive affect on behavior in dogs, just as it can in people. A dog with a clean diet is usually calmer and healthier all round. I have seen dogs where we have changed the dog to a clean diet and seen such a drastic behavior change that my services as a trainer weren’t needed for as long as we originally planned.
I always suggest to people to feed the best quality diet that they can afford, with my preference being a raw natural diet. This diet includes raw meaty bones, offal, off cuts, muscle meat, eggs, fish and some fruit and vegetables. Doing a home made raw diet doesn’t need to cost more than a premium brand dog food diet. In fact, since your dog will be in better health, you can likely save money on vet bills too.
Other benefits of a raw natural diet include improved skin and coat, no “doggy smell,” smaller less offensive smelling stools, healthier teeth and gums, improved behavior and general well-being.
I’ve been studying and recommending a raw natural diet as the best diet for dogs for the last 5 years and have recently teamed up with a qualified canine nutritionist who helps me answer nutrition questions that come up from my clients or in our online membership, the Dog Matters Academy
You may be interested to know that Guide Dogs Queensland raises their puppies and feed all their dogs on raw diets. Queensland Police on the Sunshine Coast also feed their dogs a raw natural diet (Raw 4 Paws).
Of course, one drawback to doing a raw natural diet yourself is the extra time and effort it takes to research, shop around and make sure that you’re giving your dog enough variety to cover their nutritional needs. You can always speak to a canine nutritionist or qualified holistic veterinarian if you have doubts. Feel free to contact me to point you in the right direction.
You can also buy pre-packaged raw diets for convenience and peace of mind if you’re worried about getting it right when it comes to ingredients, vitamins and minerals. These done for you raw diets are becoming increasingly popular as pet owners become more aware of healthier feeding options for their animals and want to make sure they’re feeding the best diet possible to their pets.
As supporters of raw feeding for several years, we’ve recently started stocking Raw 4 Paws – a high quality and super fresh complete raw natural diet made on the Sunshine Coast from free range meat, offal and eggs, fresh local fruit and vegetables and added vitamins and minerals. It has no fillers, no grains, no nasty chemicals, just good fresh raw food. Very good for your dog’s diet. This is the best pre-made raw diet I have ever seen after trying out several for my dogs. You can find more info about Raw 4 Paws here. Or if you’d like to find out more about feeding a home made raw diet, we are happy to help with that too and can point you in the right direction for resources supported and written by nutritionists and veterinarians.
Looking for information online can be so confusing as there is so much conflicting advice. In Training Matters, we explain not just the how of dog training, but the why, so that you know what to do and why to do it this way.