Debunking Myths Over The Use of Food in Dog Training

Use of Food in Dog Training

The Importance of Food in Dog Training and Debunking Prevalent Myths 

By Will Bangura, M.S., CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, FFCP


It’s often said that “food is the way to a man’s heart,” but it seems that this sentiment isn’t exclusive to humans. For our canine companions, food holds an irreplaceable role not just in their lives but also in the training process. However, the use of food in dog training has been subject to debate, largely misunderstood, and sometimes unfairly criticized. In this expansive article, we aim to demystify the role of food in dog training, shedding light on its effectiveness and utility while debunking some of the prevalent myths that have long plagued this age-old practice.

The Behavioral Science Behind Food Rewards

Before diving into the myths and misconceptions, it’s crucial to understand the science behind using food as a training aid. Food is more than just a ‘treat’; it’s a potent positive reinforcer. According to behavioral psychology and numerous scientific studies, a positive reinforcer increases the likelihood of a particular behavior being repeated (Skinner, 1938). For dogs, food is not just a primary reinforcer but also a biological necessity. Its importance is rooted in survival, and it has the power to activate pleasure pathways in a dog’s brain, leading to the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward (Panksepp, 1998).

The Trainer’s Perspective

From a trainer’s point of view, particularly those who practice positive reinforcement-based methods, food is indispensable. It’s a convenient, effective, and humane way to shape and modify behaviors. Whether you’re trying to teach basic commands, socialize a puppy, or correct aggressive behaviors, food can serve as a catalyst for change, speeding up the learning process while making training sessions more enjoyable for both the dog and the trainer (Overall, K., 2013).

Food is Not a Bribe

One of the most persistent myths about using food in dog training is the notion that it acts as a bribe. This could not be further from the truth. A bribe is something offered before a behavior, effectively luring the dog into performing the action. In contrast, food in dog training is presented after the action has been performed, serving as a reward and positive reinforcement for the dog’s behavior (Reid, P., 1996).

The “Forever Treat” Myth

Another common misconception is that once you start using food, you’ll always have to use it. Many dog owners are wary of establishing a never-ending cycle of treat-based bribery. This is a misunderstanding of how conditioning works. As your dog learns the desired behaviors, the need for continuous food reinforcement decreases, and verbal praise or other forms of positive reinforcement can take its place.

In conclusion, food is not just a rudimentary element in dog training but a scientifically supported tool that enhances the training process. Its importance is underscored by its effectiveness as a positive reinforcer and its ability to expedite behavioral changes. In the following sections, we will delve deeper into the role of food in specific training scenarios, offering evidence-based advice on how to leverage this powerful tool to its fullest potential.

Science Behind Rewards: Operant Conditioning and Food as a Positive Reinforcer

What is Operant Conditioning?

Operant Conditioning, a term coined by B.F. Skinner is a type of learning where behavior is controlled by consequences. In layman’s terms, it’s the learning process that involves rewards and punishments. Within this framework, there are four types of consequences: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment (Skinner, 1953). However, our focus here is on positive reinforcement, a method that has garnered unanimous approval from the scientific community for its humane and effective results (Pryor, 1999).

The Quadrants of Operant Conditioning

Understanding the concept of positive reinforcement requires a basic grasp of the four quadrants in operant conditioning. Positive means you’re adding something, and negative means you’re taking something away. Reinforcement aims to increase behavior, while punishment aims to decrease it. Positive reinforcement, therefore, involves adding something desirable to increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring again (Chance, 1999).

How Food Functions as a Positive Reinforcer.

Food, in the context of dog training, serves as one of the most potent positive reinforcers. It works on the simple principle that rewarding a behavior increases its frequency. However, it’s not just about giving a dog a treat; it’s about the timing, the quality of the treat, and its appropriateness for the behavior being reinforced (Reid, 1996). Scientific studies have shown that a quick treat given immediately following a behavior is far more effective than delayed rewards, which underscores the importance of timing in the use of food as a reinforcer (McCall & Burgin, 2002).

Satiation and Devaluation

One of the advanced topics when discussing food as a reinforcer is the concept of ‘satiation’ and ‘devaluation.’ Dogs, like humans, have preferences, and those preferences can change if a particular food reward is used too frequently, causing it to lose its reinforcing power (Van Oers, Drent, De Jong, & Van Noordwijk, 2004). This is where the science becomes a bit more nuanced; trainers often have to rotate treats or use different types of food rewards to maintain their potency.

Beyond Just Training: Building Bonds

The use of food in training also serves to deepen the bond between the dog and its owner. This is not just an anecdotal claim; science backs it. Studies show that dogs are more likely to form a positive association with people who provide them with food, thus aiding in building trust and facilitating a more harmonious cohabitation (Horn, Huber, & Range, 2013).

The use of food as a positive reinforcer is grounded in well-established psychological theories and empirical evidence. It is not merely a ‘quick fix’ but a scientifically proven method to accelerate learning and promote healthier behaviors in dogs.

Myth 1: Food as a Bribe        

One of the most pervasive misconceptions surrounding the use of food in dog training is that treats function as bribes. This myth fosters the idea that dogs only follow commands because they want the treat, not because they’ve genuinely learned the desired behavior.

Counter-Arguments: The Difference Between a Bribe and a Reinforcer.

Let’s set the record straight: a bribe is something offered before a behavior, intended to induce or influence the act. A reinforcer, on the other hand, is presented after the behavior, to increase the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated (Friedman & Sunder, 2017). In dog training, the treat serves as a reinforcer, not a bribe. It rewards the dog for a job well done and encourages the repetition of the correct behavior in the future.

Understanding the importance of timing can help dissipate this myth. A treat given before the command is more akin to a bribe. However, a treat dispensed immediately after the action reinforces the behavior, making it more likely to occur again (McCall & Burgin, 2002). This subtle but critical difference supports why food is not a bribe but rather a scientifically proven method for positive reinforcement.

Real-World Examples: It’s All in the Timing

 Take, for instance, a dog learning to sit on command. If you offer a treat before asking the dog to sit, the treat acts more like a bribe. But if you ask the dog to sit and then promptly reward it with a treat after it sits, you’re reinforcing the behavior you wish to see repeated. Over time, this builds a robust behavior chain where the dog associates sitting on command with positive outcomes, making it more likely to perform the action without the treat as the end goal (Sundman et al., 2014).

Another example is leash training. Many dogs pull on the leash when they’re excited. If you only offer a treat when your dog pulls, you’re inadvertently reinforcing that undesirable behavior. On the other hand, if you offer a treat the moment your dog walks beside you without pulling, you’re positively reinforcing good leash manners (Yin, 2009).

Thus, understanding how to apply food as a reinforcer instead of a bribe can dramatically shift your effectiveness in training. It moves the focus from short-term compliance to long-term learning and fosters a more constructive relationship between you and your dog.

Myth 2: Lifelong Dependency on Food

Another widespread belief plaguing the discourse around using food in dog training is that it leads to a lifelong dependency on treats. Detractors argue that once you start using food as a reinforcer, you’ll be “stuck” doling out treats forever just to get basic obedience.

Counter-Arguments: The Concept of Fading

The key to understanding why this myth is unfounded lies in the concept of “fading,” a fundamental principle in behavioral science. Once a behavior is well-established through the initial stages of continuous reinforcement, you can gradually reduce the frequency of the food reward (Chance, 2013). The dog doesn’t become dependent on the treat; rather, it learns to perform the behavior reliably even when a treat is not guaranteed every single time.

The goal is to transition from continuous to intermittent reinforcement schedules. This can be as simple as switching from rewarding the dog every time it sits to rewarding it three out of four times, then two out of three times, and so on. Over time, you can even diversify the types of reinforcement used, such as verbal praise or a favorite toy, which can be just as effective in maintaining the learned behavior (Hiby et al., 2004).

Real-World Examples: Beyond the Initial Training Phase

Consider a dog learning to come when called. Initially, you might reward the dog every time it comes to you. But as the behavior becomes more reliable, you may start giving treats intermittently. Eventually, the dog will respond to the recall command without needing a food reward every time. This is because the behavior has been ingrained, and the dog has generalized the behavior to different contexts and scenarios (Presland, 2018).

Another instance can be seen in advanced obedience or agility training. Highly trained dogs execute complex behaviors and sequences without the need for a food reward at every step. They’ve transitioned from a stage where treats were essential to one where the satisfaction of completing the behavior and pleasing their handler serves as its own form of reinforcement (Reid, 2012).

In summary, the idea that using food as a training aid will result in a lifetime of dependency is based on a misunderstanding of how positive reinforcement works in behavioral science. By using a well-planned fading strategy, one can train a dog to execute commands reliably without the continuous need for food rewards.

Myth 3: Distractions Overpower Food

The third myth we need to address is the notion that if there’s a distraction more enticing than food, the training will break down. Critics argue that food-based reinforcement fails in situations where the dog is presented with highly stimulating distractions, such as another dog, a squirrel, or a loud noise.

Counter-Arguments: The Role of Training Contexts and “Proofing”

The argument that distractions can overpower food rewards often overlooks the critical training steps of context variation and “proofing.” These are not just buzzwords but essential elements rooted in behavioral psychology (Miltenberger, 2011). Proofing refers to gradually exposing the dog to increasingly distracting environments while maintaining the desired behavior. It’s a way to condition the dog to focus on the task at hand, even in challenging settings (McConnell, 1998).

Moreover, the effectiveness of a food reward doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it is shaped by the training history and the present context (Bräuer et al., 2006). When properly “proofed,” a dog can learn to maintain its focus on the handler and follow commands, even in the presence of distractions.

Real-World Examples: Recall in a Dog Park and Leave-It Command

Take the example of a dog trained in recall in a controlled, low-distraction environment. Over time, the training sessions could be moved to locations with progressively more distractions, like a quiet outdoor area, then a busier park, and finally, a bustling dog park. If done correctly, the dog will learn to prioritize the recall command over the temptations surrounding it (Donaldson, 1996).

Another example involves the “Leave-It” command. Initially, your dog might be trained to avoid picking up a low-value item like a piece of paper when given a food reward. As training progresses, you can work on leaving higher-value distractions like a favorite toy or even another animal. By steadily increasing the level of difficulty, the dog learns that obeying the command has a higher value than the immediate distraction (Yin, 2009).

By systematically addressing the distraction concern and building the training on a foundation of sound behavioral science, the myth that food is powerless against distractions becomes clearly debunked.

Best Practices for Using Food in Training

When to Introduce Food

When it comes to using food in training, timing is everything. The introduction of food rewards should be well-calibrated to the dog’s training level and the complexity of the behavior being taught. For basic commands like “Sit” or “Stay,” food can be introduced almost immediately to shape the desired behavior (Pryor, 1999). For more complex tasks that may involve a chain of behaviors or high-stress environments, you may want to use other forms of positive reinforcement initially to establish a baseline of compliance and then introduce food as a higher-value reward (Reid, 1996).

The Two-Pronged Strategy: Primary and Secondary Reinforcers

The smart way to use food in training is not to rely solely on it. Food can be used as a primary reinforcer, but it’s equally important to build secondary reinforcers like verbal praise or petting (Hiby et al., 2004). The beauty of this approach is that you can use these secondary reinforcers in situations where food may not be practical or when you begin to phase out food rewards (O’Heare, 2007).

Phasing Out Food Rewards: The Jackpot Method and Variable Reward Schedules

A common misconception is that once you start using food, you’ll never be able to stop. However, a properly designed training program has built-in mechanisms for phasing out food rewards. One method is the “jackpot” system, where instead of a treat every time, the dog occasionally receives a “jackpot” of multiple treats for a particularly good performance (McConnell, 1998).

Another scientifically supported method is the variable reward schedule, drawn from principles in operant conditioning (Skinner, 1938). Here, rewards are given less frequently and at unpredictable times, which actually increases the dog’s motivation to perform the behavior (Martin & Friedman, 2011).

Real-world Transition: From Food to Life Rewards

In practice, you can smoothly transition from food rewards to what trainers call “life rewards,” like the opportunity to go for a walk, play with other dogs, or get a favorite toy (Ryan, 2008). This method ensures that your dog is listening to you not just for the food but because they have learned to find your commands reliably rewarding in multiple ways.

In summary, food is an invaluable tool in dog training, but it’s not the only tool. By being strategic about when and how you introduce and phase out food rewards, you can set up a dynamic, flexible, and effective training system for your dog.


The use of food in dog training is a subject that’s been shrouded in misconceptions and myths for years. Whether it’s the belief that food serves merely as a bribe or the idea that its usage leads to a lifelong dependency, these myths are easily debunked when one delves into the science and practical applications of dog training. Operant conditioning, a well-documented psychological principle, serves as a foundational aspect of why food, as a positive reinforcer, works effectively (Skinner, 1938). From the initial training phases to the point where food rewards can be reduced and replaced, the entire process is systematic and grounded in science.

Future Implications

Looking forward, the need for more public education and awareness on this topic cannot be overstated. As dog training techniques continue to evolve, incorporating a more nuanced understanding of canine psychology and behavior, food will remain a vital tool in the trainer’s toolkit. Further research could explore the best ways to phase out food rewards, or how different types of food impact the training process (Hiby et al., 2004).

One area ripe for investigation is the role of personalized food rewards based on individual dog preferences and health needs, making the training not just effective but also nutritionally beneficial (Mills & Westgarth, 2020). Another avenue could be the use of technology to provide timely rewards, leveraging smart devices to ensure accurate and timely positive reinforcement (Tod et al., 2018).

Moreover, this kind of evidence-based approach could very well shift the larger conversation about pet care. By refuting persistent myths, we can elevate the discourse from mere opinion to a dialogue informed by scientific evidence, ultimately leading to better, more humane treatment of animals (Fernandes et al., 2017).

By embracing science-based, evidence-backed methods, we’re not just improving the efficacy of training protocols but also fostering stronger, more enriching relationships between dogs and their owners. And that, in the grand scheme of things, is the most satisfying reward of all.


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