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Training with Food

Training with Food

Why train with food?

Food is a great motivator

What food do I use?

Do I always have to use food?

To briefly touch on the brain chemistry of rewards: when a dog eats, they get a hit of dopamine, which is an important neurotransmitter for learning and motivationThe intensity that they are motivated by food is called their food drive. A dog with an extremely high food drive would work for food past feeling full and would work for food that is traditionally considered low value, like kibble or vegetables. A dog with low food drive would often need to feel hungry to work for food and may need food that is very fragrant.


Food drive is dynamic, it is something you can increase through training and lifestyle. If your dog is overweight, you should cut back on the daily food they eat to find the amount of calories they actually need in a day to maintain a healthy weight. If you free feed your dog, switch to a meal schedule where two to three times a day you put the food down for ten minutes, and if they don’t choose to eat it within that time you will put it up until the next meal time. Dogs will also build food drive by understanding and loving the training process. When a dog enjoys the time spent training with you, what you are using matters less.


If your dog’s food drive has increased or decreased dramatically in a short period of time, take them to the veterinarian immediately. If your dog has always had an over-the-top response to food or has always had a hard time eating much of anything, those are also concerns you should talk to a vet about.

The best food to use in your training is the easiest food for you to handle, that your dog loves eating, and is a good source of nutrition for your dog. It’s okay to use junk food sometimes; if pupperoni and string cheese is what your dog needs to succeed in a training scenario, then use it. However if you need to be training your dog over long periods of time and do so frequently, you should use a complete dog food or unprocessed meat. 


Instead of finding training treats in the treat aisle, check out the dog food aisles for high protein kibble, freeze dried meal toppers, dog food rolls and other foods that would be a healthy addition to your dog’s diet. For the dog who is happy getting their kibble everyday, you may not need to get anything new and you should get your dog accustomed to working for some of their food. You can make them work for it with obedience and with puzzle toys.


You want to find several things your dog loves to eat so that you can keep a rotation of rewards going. If you change out your main reward every month then you can boost the motivation in your dog.

A common question when training with food begins, is when can you stop rewarding with food? When will you go to work for no paycheck? This will depend on the dog and what their drives are. People work for free but they still get something out of it that isn’t money. Newer behaviors should still be rewarded with food often. However, you should not be reliant on carrying food to have your dog respond to well known cues. You need to distance yourself from the food reward. This means you need to generalize the training picture for your dog by not wearing a treat pouch, stashing food away from where you cued the behavior, and diversifying what a reward can be. Some dogs will perform fully trained behaviors for praise or play!


Positive reinforcement is not about food or bribes, it is about changing a dog’s brain chemistry to cement good habits so that the presence of the food will not always be necessary. Food is the easiest way to train a dog to do new behaviors and put them on cue. There are simple ways to not be dependent on food later in training but even with a trained dog, it is a good idea to carry food on you into new situations with your dog so you can set them up for success and build great habits.

Using food in your dog training is the easiest way to communicate with a dog. Dogs are naturally motivated by food, every dog needs to eat everyday so why not use it to have some fun with your dog and teach new things. There are so many ways you can use food in your training. It isn't just for sit and stay! You can use food to increase your dog’s confidence and teach them to problem solve. You can also use it to change your dog's emotions and bond with them. Food is a powerful motivator; if you learn how to use it, you can teach a dog anything within their capabilities.

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