Busting Myths About Training Your Dog With Food Rewards

Dogs have become such a deeply integrated part of our daily lives as a society. They go on outings and adventures with us, we base our daily routines around taking care of their needs, and we pour many of our resources into their healthcare and activities that promote their wellbeing. But somehow when it comes to training dogs, some of the advice out there tends to be several years behind the most modern methods or about what is fact vs. myth. For a dog owner just trying to figure out what’s best for their dog, all of the conflicting information out there from friends and family (and sometimes on TV or the internet) can make deciding how to train your dog feel impossible.

Training with food rewards is something that is slowly becoming more and more commonplace as an accessible, effective, and ethical choice to change behavior. However, there are still a lot of myths that float around from more outdated sources about how training with food actually works. Today, we’re going to bust these myths!

Myth 1: Am I Just Bribing My Dog to Listen to Me?

Dogs (and humans) only behave in certain ways because they have a motivation driving them to do so. You get up to go pour yourself a glass of water because your thirst motivates you to do it. You call up an old friend to catch up on the phone because your desire to socialize motivates you to do it. You go into work every day because your desire to be paid motivates you to do it. Similarly, our dogs also perform behaviors to acquire something that motivates them! Training with food rewards is simply harnessing a dog’s food motivation to change their behavior. Giving a food reward to your dog in exchange for a behavior is known as “positive reinforcement,” which is one of four quadrants of operant conditioning. Something is considered positive reinforcement when it increases the likelihood of a behavior happening again. For example, giving a piece of cheese after your dog targets your hand on cue means that the next time you cue a hand target, your dog is more likely to do it again because they were positively reinforced for it with cheese, something they desire. Bribery, on the other hand, occurs when a reward is offered before a behavior to increase the likelihood of it happening in that exact moment. This means instead of the reward being a consequence to a behavior and encouraging that behavior to occur again, the reward is happening before or during the behavior and the learner is not making a connection that will cause the behavior to occur more frequently in the future.

Because behavior is driven by an underlying motivator, if we are not using motivators the dog desires to get behavior from our dogs, that means we are likely using motivators our dog wants to avoid. This means that we are training our dogs with discomfort, intimidation, and sometimes even pain to get behavior from them which can be very damaging to their confidence, to your relationship with them, and can often create unintended negative side effects. You may get rid of one behavior you don’t want from your dog through this style of training, but another problem behavior may pop up to replace it.

So, in summary: no matter what methods we choose to train with, our dogs are often either working to acquire or avoid something. Giving them rewards as a consequence following desired behavior is different from using food to influence behavior in the moment (bribery). Using rewards to train is the better alternative over using coercion or discomfort as it has a smaller potential for negative fallout, and encourages our dogs to work because they want to, not because they are trying to avoid what will happen if they don’t. All of us deserve fair payment for our efforts, and dogs are included in that!

Myth 2: Won’t My Dog Become Overweight?

Not if you are smart about it! Training with food while also maintaining your dog’s healthy weight is actually very easy to do so long as you take a few considerations into account. The main factors we look out for are:

  • Keeping track of portion sizes at meal time:

If you are training with significant portions of food throughout the day, you will need to take this into account when portioning out your dog’s breakfast and dinner. People commonly overlook this when starting to train with food. They will feed enough food throughout the day through training to account for a full meal for their dog, but won’t cut back on the amounts of food given at mealtimes so the dog ends up eating more calories than usual. When you’ve used a lot of food through training in a day, make sure to adjust the meals given accordingly.

  • Does your dog work for their regular diet? Use this to your advantage:

Some dogs have a higher drive for food than others. This means, a lot of dogs out there will work for their regular pieces of kibble! If this sounds like your dog, you may not need to use food outside of meals very often to train (except for training in high distraction or for “special” behaviors like recalls). If your dog is easily motivated to work for their regular everyday food they get at mealtimes, just portion out parts of their daily meals and set them aside to use in training throughout the day. If your dog is not motivated by their regular kibble, there are plenty of meal toppers and mix-ins for dogs from the pet store that can be used for training and tend to be higher value for more picky dogs. These toppers are often nutritionally complete and balanced, and can be fed as a meal!

  • Food used in training should be fed in small amounts per repetition:

Dogs do not need large pieces of food when training. Typically, food cut into pea-sized pieces is all it takes to effectively train behaviors with your dog, as they learn through frequent repetitions and not through the amount of the reward received. If you’re attentive about making sure to give your dog just a small, pea-sized piece of a treat per repetitio