Luvk9s Dog Training

Use of treats/food as a reward ...

and why it's so effective

Using food and/or treats to motivate and train your dog is one of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal!  Most breeds of dogs are incredibly food motivated.  How often have you pulled out one of your dog's favorite food treats, only to have your dog perform his entire repertoire of tricks, without you even saying a word?  DOGS LOVE FOOD!
An amazing thing that scientists have discovered is that food can be used to “rewire” a dog’s brain to actually make him feel good about, for example, responding to commands such as sit, down or come.  The use of food is also commonly used when trying to desensitize and counter-condition how your dog feels about scary objects, dogs or people.  In short, most of our senses (sight, sound) are routed to the cortex (the analytical part of our brain), but the sense of smell is routed to the amygdala in the limbic system, which is the emotional part of our brain.  Have you ever wondered why smelling pine trees makes you feel warm and fuzzy about Christmas?  Or why the smell of home-baked cookies makes you think affectionately of your grandmother baking cookies?  Smell and emotion are strongly linked, and there is currently quite a bit of research underway to study how this can be used to help humans… well as dogs!  For specific, detailed information on how powerful the sense of smell actually is, click
here see Tim Jacob’s, (Cardiff University, UK) tutorial on the sense of smell.

Tim Jacob’s research shows the following:

  • Strong odors are associated with food
  • The sense of smell is directly linked to areas of pleasure (or displeasure) in the limbic system of the brain
  • Using food teaches the brain to feel good (ask dog to sit, pull out piece of chicken, dog smells chicken before even seeing it, feels good, starts to associate sitting with feeling good)
  • The brain is actually rewired
  • Eventually, the food can be cut out

Patricia McConnell, PhD, author of FOR THE LOVE OF A DOG, says this about the use of food in training:  “If your dog learns to associate the good smells of food with sitting when you ask, then you’re teaching his brain to feel good when he listens to you.  This is one of the reasons you can use food to get a behavior started, and then drop it out once the behavior has become a habit.  You don’t need to carry dog treats around in your pocket for the rest of your dog’s life, because you’ve wired his brain to associate listening to you with feeling good.  If, on the other hand, you train primarily using force…you’re missing out on a remarkable opportunity to condition a primal, positive association between obedience to you and his reaction to good food.”

Trainers often hear their client’s state that their dog isn’t food motivated, which is sometimes the case.  But often, a specific food might not be effective because it is not “high value” enough.  If your dog is not responding to his kibble, a dry dog biscuit, or a piece of carrot, try using hot dogs or a very aromatic piece of steak, fish or chicken.

If your dog won’t take a treat, try to determine if:

  • Your dog is too distracted.  You may need to try a higher value treat.  If the really high value treats do not work, move your dog to a less distracting environment and train there – and slowly work your way back up to working in the higher distracting environment.
  • Your dog is too full.  It is usually best to train your dog on an empty stomach.  If need be, use another type of reward such as touch, play or tone of voice.
  • Your dog is stressed.  Try to reduce your dog's stress level by distancing yourself from what is stressing out the dog.  Try dropping treats on the floor (instead of asking him to eat them out of your hand). 
  • Your dog is not feeling well.  You probably shouldn’t be training.

You should always verbally reward your dog whenever he does what you ask.  In addition, studies have shown that the best way to maintain a behavior is to intermittently treat your dog. 

If you want to vary the rewards you give your dog, try using one of these “back-up” rewards:

  • A game of play - chasing a ball, chasing you, playing a game of tug
  • Petting, touching, stroking or massaging your dog
  • Talking and cooing at your dog in a cheerful tone of voice
  • Clapping your hands and cheering
  • Laughing
  • Smiling
  • Using a verbal marker and/or praise:  “Yes, good dog!”
  • Using life rewards.  Your dog sits - he gets his dinner.  Your dog waits at the door - he gets to go on a walk.  Your dog makes eye contact ("watch me") - he is released to go sniff the bush.  Your dog does a down - you toss the tennis ball.