Training Your Dog with Treats

An in-depth look at behavior association with our resident dog trainer

By Renée Erdman


Photo credit: Phillip Bump/CC

Using food as a reinforcement/reward in dog training is always a hot topic. Opinions vary from“food is a bribe” to “using food for training is for the weak.” But If we move away from opinions and towards science and fact, we can clear up many misconceptions about using food to train.

Bribe vs. Reward

A bribe would come first, before the behavior. This means the dog will perform the behavior only if food is presented. A reward is something given to the dog AFTER the behavior has been offered or performed. This reward tells the dog that there is a possibility of reward in the future if they repeat the behavior, so the likelihood of them offering it again is very high. It’s all about creating an association.

Now, if I were to wave a piece of food in front of my dog’s nose to get that behavior, that indeed would be a bribe.

The Difference Between a Lure and a Bribe


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Many times using food to lure is the best and simplest way to show a dog a particular behavior, such as “down.” If you lure with food into a downward motion from a sit, the dog can follow the food to the ground and we can mark and reward this. VERY IMPORTANT: Be sure to fade the lure into a hand signal quite quickly or you WILL have to use a food bribe in future.

Why Food? Shouldn’t Praise Be Good Enough?

To ensure animals are motivated for training, we cannot kid ourselves and think that praise would/should be good enough. If your boss were to offer you the same, would that motivate you to work? Since money means nothing to dogs, it is only natural that such sense-driven beings would be highly motivated by food.

Food actually turns on the dog’s “seeker” system. It activates the senses and turns on the thinking brain (as opposed to the emotional brain) and readies them for learning and work.

Can’t I Just Use My Dog’s Kibble?

Day in and day out the bowl goes down, full of kibble. The same kibble. Every day. Now, if you want to motivate a dog, it makes sense to “up the ante” from bland kibble to something more delicious. A “treat” if you will.  And depending on the difficulty of the training, you should dish out the reward accordingly. As an example: you have never taught your dog to hand target AND you are in a very distracting environment. A double whammy. What would be a better choice, kibble or a piece of cheese?  ☺

Remember, if you utilize food in training the way it is intended, it will prove most effective. You’ll speed up your dog’s learning process and yield long-lasting results.  Why not base your decision on sound science and see the results for yourself?