Using food in training


There are many ways to use food in training and it's important to understand its role before embarking on a training plan. This is where people are often confused and trainers facepalm, trying desperately to make sense of it all. It can be very confusing AND misleading, so stick with me.


We can use food to create fabulous associations with people, dogs, places, things, sounds, textures, etc...anything at all! This is founded in Classical Conditioning. Have a hard time remembering that? Think classical music, a feeling, an emotion. Food used in Classical Conditioning is not a reward - listening to classical music puts us in a state of mind, similarly to good food. Pavlov. The bell over the door rang every time they enter the room to feed the dogs. The dogs started to pair these two events as the bell predicted the food. With repetition, the bell would cause the dogs to salivate and get excited in anticipation of the food.

Here's what it looks like:

  • The dog perceives the scary thing (man wearing a hat, child on a bike, barking dog, smoke alarm, jingling dog tags, vacuum, etc)
  • You start happy-talking as you reach for the delicious treats in your pouch
  • You feed a stream of delicious treats as you continue to happy talk
  • The scary thing goes away or ends and you feed one last (insurance) treat and stop the happy talk and the stream of food
  • Repeat this process every time your dog experiences the scary thing and you will start to see that your dog relaxes and even happily anticipates the food when the scary thing is perceived!

Remember that the food is NOT contingent on a behaviour; the food happens regardless of what the dog is doing (barking, growling, sitting, starting, etc...)

If the dog will not take the food, you are too close to the scary thing - it is too close, too loud, too intense. Get some distance and try again. 


We can use food to reward a dog for a job well done - this is their paycheque. This is founded in "Operant Conditioning". Have a hard time remembering that? Remember that the word operant is related to "doing" or "work", so the food used in Operant Conditioning is a paycheque for work done.

Here's what it looks like:

  • You ask your dog to sit. Your dog sits.
  • You say "YES!!" as soon as their bum hits the floor
  • You grab a delicious treat from your pouch and feed it to them while they are still sitting

Remember that the food IS contingent on a behaviour; the food happens only if they have performed the behaviour you requested.

We can use food to distract a dog if needed. This is not considered training, necessarily, but simply a distraction, or management at the moment.

  • We might take a piece of food and hold it to the dog's nose and lure them away from something they are fixed on. 
  • We might use food as "bait" in certain behaviours like "leave it" - the food might be on the ground, distracting the dog and when they disengage from it (leave it!), they get paid their paycheque from the person's treat pouch. 
Success message!
Warning message!
Error message!