Do you have a dog that would do anything for food but once there is no food around, your requests fall on deaf ears? Here are some tips and tricks to set you up for successful training.

Golden Retriever, dog training

Would you work for free? Volunteering for a great cause can be extremely rewarding. But there has to be a reward – otherwise you wouldn’t do it. Whether you feel valued as a member of a great organisation or enjoy the company of like-minded people, there is something that motivates you to devote your time and effort without getting paid for it. The same principle applies to the way dogs learn and the choices they make in life.


So how does reward-based training work? Without going too deep into technical terms, here is a quick rundown: dogs learn through associations. They know that their behaviour has consequences (good or bad) and are more likely to repeat behaviours that are followed by a reward (good outcome). Quite logical, right?

If you keep rewarding good manners and redirect unwanted behaviours onto something more acceptable behaviour, your dog will choose to repeat what’s more rewarding. For example, you come home from work, wearing nice clothes and your dog is running towards you eager to say “hi”. If your dog knows “sit”, you can ask for a “sit” before s/he jumps and then only pat, praise or give a treat if your excited pooch sits. If you consistently reward your dog for sitting, they will learn over time that sitting is more rewarding than jumping.

positive reinforcement training

Learning new tricks or behaviours with positive reinforcement is fun, enjoyable, motivating, and more pleasurable for both owner and pooch. The reward does not always have to be food – it really depends on each individual. Some dogs prefer pats and praise, some would do anything for a good tug-of-war game, but the truth is: most dogs love their bellies.

As a positive reinforcement trainer I use food when teaching new behaviours because it is so easy to motivate dogs with treats. Once a behaviour is reliably performed on cue, food reward should be faded to attention, pats, praise, games or a combination of these.

If your pooch will only do something when there is food around, chances are that you haven’t properly faded the food reward into different types of reinforcement. But please never ever let go of food reward completely. Even if your dog has mastered a new trick or behaviour in different scenarios, randomly rewarding your dog with food is the best way to keep them motivated.


Food can also be an indicator of how dogs feel. If your dog is willing to eat the same treat at home but refuses to eat it at the vets or at the grooming salon, it can mean that s/he is stressed. If a dog is so anxious or aroused that they are in survival mode, their brain switches off metabolism because eating is not important in that moment.  (Unless you’re a Labrador….)


Treats can help dogs overcome fear. If you introduce a feared object (person, location, sound, anything) in a gradual and careful way and pair it with high-value treats, it can change your dog’s perception of the negative stimuli by creating a positive association in the brain. If you’re interested to learn more about the benefits of food in behaviour modification, here is a great article by renown dog trainer Victoria Stilwell.

If you notice that your dog is anxious or fearful in certain situations, please reach out to a qualified behavioural trainer or veterinary behaviourist and avoid people who are using aversive training methods (you can filter them out easily if you hear them using terms such as “showing who’s the boss”, “dominance”, and “pack leader”). Using punishment or pain to “train” the already fearful/anxious dog will only make the situation worse.

So.. to treat or not to treat? There is no question.

Written by Bea Labady
Photo credit: Godrick (Shutterstock)

If you would like to see how positive reinforcement can benefit your dog, click here:



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