Using food in training

Why use food in training?

Positive reinforcement means to add something the dog loves to encourage them to repeat the behaviour. Animals are programmed to work for their food by hunting so we’ve taken away their natural problem-solving abilities serving food “on a silver platter”. Wasn’t it Kathy Sdao who said that you have to feed your dog anyway, so why not reallocate those calories to training?

You can certainly use other rewards such as toys/play, physical affection, verbal praise, access to resources (dog park, swimming hole, doggie-friends, Nana and Poppa, whatever the dog LOVES). However oftentimes in training  you need to be able to repeat the behaviour 5-10 times in a session, relatively quickly and food is the fastest way of doing just that.

I don’t want to bribe my dog through treat-training or create a food dependency.

Good – we’re on the same page. Nothing irks me more than bribing a dog. It’s not teaching!

Here’s how to avoid bribing and food dependencies: The food should NEVER be visible before the cue is given. If it is, you’re bribing. The food should arrive AFTER the behaviour is offered. That way, it’s a reward, not a bribe.

Food dependency occurs when WE create it – not the dog. In the beginning we reward every time we get the behaviour. When the behaviour is fluent and generalized to various environments and distraction levels, then we can change our reinforcement schedule by feeding every OTHER time we get the behaviour, every THIRD time, every FOURTH time, and then randomly so that the dog never knows when the reward is coming. Like a slot machine! That’s what will make the behaviour the strongest…and neither you nor the dog will be dependent on the treat.

What kind of food does my dog like?

You’ll have to ask your dog! Dogs have preferences just like we do. Test out a few different types of treats and see which one really gets their attention. Take a few options on a walk with you and see which one keeps their attention while they’re outside in a higher distraction area. The winner is the one you should use in training.

Can my dog have “people food”?

Absolutely! What do you think kibble is made of? Kibble is just processed “people food” that is baked down into a tiny little hard kibble, filled with preservatives to ensure it has a long shelf life and then sprayed with flavouring to make it taste better. Does that sound like it’s better than “people food”? In fact, my dog ONLY eats “people-food” – I won’t give him processed food or kibble and he’s the healthiest dog I know!

Your dog can eat a variety of foods, save for a handful of toxic ones (chocolate, grapes, raisins, onion, macadamia nuts, pits/seeds, to name just a few). We generally suggest a pure protein, boiled or baked, and then chopped up. At least then you know exactly what’s going into your dog’s body and you have limited the preservatives and chemicals they’re ingesting.

Why can’t I just use kibble?

You can certainly try, however if your dog eats kibble for every meal, you’re not really giving them any incentive to work hard. Most dogs don’t find kibble very high value (have you tasted it??) so using a higher value food reward will bring you faster and stronger behaviours in training.

Will feeding “people-food” teach my dog to beg?

If you feed “people-food” directly from your plate or the table when your dog is begging for it, then yes. Absolutely. You’ve just reinforced a behaviour therefore it is likely to be repeated.

If you use people-food in training then no, your dog is not likely to beg. If they start begging, you can use positive reinforcement training to teach them a solid “go to mat” and “stay” so that they’re not in your face when you’re eating!

Are crunchy biscuits or chopped vegetables okay?

I personally wouldn’t use them as dogs tend to have to chew them and then they get tired/bored with them. They’re not very tasty and they certainly don’t have a great smell. They’re fine if you’re rewarding your dog as a one-off but if you’re hoping for an excellent training session, you’ll find your dog is tired of chewing about 10 minutes in and has lost interest in you and the game.

How big should the treats be?

Great question! We don’t want to fill our dogs up halfway through a training session, so it’s paramount that we use a tiny treat. For puppies and extra small dogs I use a treat the size of half a green pea. For small to medium size dogs I use a treat the size of a green pea. For large to extra large breed dogs, I use a treat the size of two green peas.

If you feed them too much of anything, they will likely have gastro-upset such as gas or diarrhea. No fun for anyone involved!

How many should I bring?

I always suggest bringing more than you think you’ll need for the session. 3/4 of a sandwich baggie is likely a good estimate. If you have leftovers, great! Pop them back in the fridge or freezer for the next session. It’s best to have too many than too little!

My dog is not food motivated. What should I do?

As a famous trainer once said, “All dogs are motivated at some point by food, because if they weren’t they’d be dead.”

We need to close the economy on food. This does not mean that you must starve your dog. Don’t get me wrong! It simply means that you have to adjust the WAY your dog accesses their food. If your dog has constant access to a full food bowl 24/7, then food is not of high value – it is merely a piece of furniture. They will simply eat to sustain life. (Also keep in mind that it only takes a couple of hours of being exposed to the air for kibble to go rancid, so they’re not even going to enjoy it when they DO eat it!)

Stop free-feeding your dog. They don’t enjoy it. I promise. Start hand feeding your dog at meal times to really increase the bond between you both. Try taking their food on walks instead of feeding out of a bowl – a few kibble every time they make eye contact or respond to a cue. Feed them out of food dispensing toys rather than a boring bowl. All of these things increase the VALUE of the food in the dog’s perspective.

Also, never feed your dog before a training session. For one, you’re doubling their calories which will lead to unnecessary weight gain. Two, you’re filling them up and then asking them to work hard for something they won’t want to eat!

What if most food makes my dog sick? / My dog has severe allergies

I would certainly speak with your veterinarian and a qualified nutrition consultant if that is the case. We strongly recommend Sabine Contreras ( and Monica Segal ( as they have studied with vets and beyond.

Use very small amounts of the food you know your dog can tolerate and bring a variety so that it’s spread out. You can bring their regular food and try to “spice it up” a little by using another ingredient that they can tolerate.

When all else fails, try putting two portions of their kibble into a baggie, sprinkle with parmesan cheese (if that is tolerated), seal it and leave it in the fridge overnight. You can do the same with a hot dog. Grill a hot dog and toss it in a baggie with two portions of their kibble and then seal it and leave it in the fridge overnight. Take the hot dog out the next day and just use their kibble, which now smells and tastes like hot dog! The liquid from canned tuna is also a great option!

Please do not wait to deal with this – Sabine and Monica have saved many dogs’ lives through nutrition and are an amazing resource not to be missed. Your dog can have a better quality of life and a better relationship with food. There is no such thing as “hypoallergenic” food; every dog has a different allergen and a different reaction so no one food fits all. Many foods claim to be, but they simply mask the problem. Find out what the trigger is and avoid it. Your dog’s health is worth it! Plus, food intolerances and allergies can lead to serious behavioural issues even if they’re being “managed” with special diets.

What are some ideas for treats?

Ah, the million dollar question! Here you go!

Boiled / baked protein

  • Take a cheap cut of beef, pork, turkey, chicken (including ground)
  • Bake it or boil it
  • Strain off any fat
  • Let cool
  • Chop into bite-size pieces and portion into baggies
  • Refrigerate for up to 3-4 days
  • Freeze for up to 2-3 months (freezer-safe container)

Cheese (always opt for low-fat)

  • Shred or chop into bite-size pieces
  • Refrigerate for up to 5-7 days
  • Freeze for up to 3 months (freezer-safe container)

Wet dog food (canned)

  • Add a little water to dilute it
  • Portion into a squeeze tube (like this one:
  • Refrigerate for up to 5-7 days
  • Freeze for up to 2-3 months (freezer-safe container – NOT the squeeze tube)

Commercial Rollover Dog Food rolls

This kind: (they have a few flavours)

  • Slice into 1/4” slices
  • Pile 3-4 slices at a time and dice in one direction, keeping the form
  • Turn the pile 90 degrees and dice in the next direction, making tiny cubes.
  • Refrigerate for up to 5-7 days
  • Freeze for up to 3 months (freezer-safe container)

How to slice and dice Rollover Dog Food rolls:

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Doesn’t this look like more fun than a bowl??

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One Response to Using food in training

  1. We train all dogs of all ages the same way. If there are diet restrictions, we mind those carefully but we just watch the caloric intake and use healthy, whole foods so that we don’t cause tummy-upset or nutritional imbalances.

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