When it comes to reducing reactive behaviors in dogs, positive reinforcement is the best way to train. Or at least it is the most recommended way to train if you listen to the advice of board-certified veterinary behaviorists. But even if you train with a balanced training style, positive reinforcers are an important part of any dog’s training journey. And for most dogs one of the best positive reinforcers is food. So this post is all about finding the best treats for your dog to help him or her be as motivated as possible to keep learning.
Some dogs are more food motivated than others, but all dogs eat. If your dog has health concerns that affect his or her appetite you may have to incorporate some non-food rewards or wait to really work on behavior modification and training until after your dog’s health issues have been addressed. Also, I recommend that if your dog has any health concerns, you consult with your veterinarian when determining food reward options for your dog.
Before we discuss finding the best treats for your dog, I want to spend a couple of paragraphs looking at why positive reinforcement is the recommended training method for dogs and why can’t you just use other training methods, like electronic collars that train with a mix of positive punishment and negative reinforcement. But if you just came for information about finding a training treat your dog will love, scroll down to the “Food Rewards for Dogs” section.
Positive Reinforcement as the Recommended Training Method
Alright, let’s take a quick refresher on the basic training methods. Training (also known as operant conditioning) falls into 2 basic categories: reinforcement and punishment. Reinforcement will make a behavior more likely to happen again. Punishment will make a behavior less likely to happen again.
These two categories are then further divided into positive and negative techniques, depending on whether you are adding something to the environment or taking something out of the environment. So you can have either positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement. Positive punishment or negative punishment.
Let’s look at some examples:
Positive Reinforcement: Adding something the dog likes that will increase the likelihood that the behavior will happen again. Example: Giving a dog a treat to reinforce a polite sit.
Negative Reinforcement: Removing something aversive in order to increase the likelihood of a behavior happening again. Example: Reactive dogs negatively reinforce barking behavior towards other dogs and people out on walks frequently. They bark and the other dog and handler walk away, removing the aversive “intruding” dog from close contact. This reinforces the desire to bark.
Positive Punishment: Adding something aversive to decrease the likelihood that the behavior will happen again. Example: Jerking on the leash to reprimand your dog for barking at another dog.
Negative Punishment: Removing something the dog wants in order to decrease the likelihood that a behavior will occur again. Example: By stopping forward movement every time your dog pulls on the leash you are removing something your dog wants (forward movement) to decrease the likelihood of your dog pulling on the leash.
These 4 categories of operant conditioning (training) can be mixed and matched in a variety of ways. And frequently negative punishment and positive reinforcement are used together with great success (often called balanced training). But most veterinary behaviorists advocate against positive punishment and negative reinforcement, working to avoid aversive techniques as much as possible.
The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) advocates for teaching animals through the reinforcement of desired behaviors and the removal of reinforcement for undesired behaviors. The ACVB also encourages modification of the environment, and, if needed, the use of psychoactive medication and other products to create a learning environment where training methods based on respect of the animal’s welfare can be most effective.
The ACVB stands against training methods that cause short or long lasting pain, discomfort or fear. Aversive training methods can be dangerous to people as well as animals and pose a threat to animal welfare by inhibiting learning, increasing behaviors related to fear and distress, and causing direct injury.https://www.dacvb.org/page/PositionStatement
Obviously it is difficult and potentially impossible to completely eliminate aversive techniques. Even pulling back on a leash introduces some restrictions and negative emotions in a dog. But the goal is to use as few aversive as possible. This may also be a good place to request that everyone please be kind in their comments and understand that dog training is kind of like parenting. There are a lot of different styles practiced by very loving caretakers.
But here are the conclusions of a few research studies that support the shift in training methodology from balanced to primarily positive reinforcement. These are studies that have influenced my training style and the styles of the many veterinary behaviorists that I reference in these blog posts.
The Science Behind Positive Reinforcement Training Recommendations for Dogs
When it comes to reactivity, positive reinforcement is the recommended way to train. Don’t believe me? Then just read any recent article by a board-certified veterinary behaviorist on reactivity, aggression, and other problem behaviors in dogs.
The results of this review study by Gal Ziv, published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior in 2017, showed “that using aversive training methods (e.g., positive punishment and negative reinforcement) can jeopardize both the physical and mental health of dogs. In addition, although positive punishment can be effective, there is no evidence that it is more effective than positive reinforcement-based training. In fact, there is some evidence that the opposite is true.”
From research by Stephanie Deldalle and Florence Gaunet, published in a 2014 issue of the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, “results show that dogs from the school using a negative reinforcement-based method demonstrated lowered body postures and signals of stress, whereas dogs from the school using a positive reinforcement-based method showed increased attentiveness toward their owner.” This study also concluded that training methods based on positive reinforcement were less stressful and potentially better for the welfare of dogs.
A study by China, Mills, and Cooper published in the Frontiers in Veterinary Science Journal looked specifically at using electronic collars vs. positive reinforcement. They concluded that “in many ways, training with positive reinforcement was found to be more effective at addressing the target behavior as well as general obedience training. This method of training also poses fewer risks to dog welfare and quality of the human-dog relationship.”
And for the final study I will cite in this blog post, Blackwell, Twells, Seawright, and Casey published an article in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior in 2008 that specifically looks at training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems as reported by owners in dogs. Their conclusion was that “there is an association between a lower number of potentially undesirable behaviors reported in dogs trained without the use of punishment-based techniques.”
And honestly, this tends to make sense when you think about it. As briefly discussed in my previous blog post So your dog is reactive? Now what?, most reactive behavior results from a state of anxiety, over-arousal, or frustration. And when has the threat of punishment ever made you less anxious or frustrated?
For example, if I was nervous about hiking along a narrow ledge, it wouldn’t help if someone yelled at me until I did it. (Positive punishment of yelling for standing still and negative reinforcement of the yelling stopping when I crossed the ledge.) It would be much better if someone calmly told me all about the beautiful view on the other side that made crossing that ledge worth it. Crossing the ledge would earn me the positive reinforcement of that beautiful view. I will be honest, I don’t think I would want to hike with the yeller again, even if the end result was the same thing.
Another example: Police officers hand out tickets as punishment for speeding. But really that just makes my stomach drop every time I see a cop on the road. Even if I am driving at a safe speed, I double-check my speedometer quickly and feel a little spike of cortisol. A better incentive for me to reliably drive the speed limit and make slow stops and starts is the positive reinforcement of getting money back from my car insurance plan for safe driving.
Okay, that’s enough about the benefits of positive reinforcement for now. So let’s move back into discussing the highest value positive reinforcer for most dogs: food!
Food Rewards for Dogs
First, let’s make sure to clear up a couple of common misconceptions by discussing normal dog eating behaviors. It is important to understand that dogs are omnivores. As a result, food rewards for your dogs can include fruits, vegetables, and carbs in addition to meat/protein sources. In fact, dogs often really enjoy novel foods (novel just means foods they haven’t had before, aka new foods). So having a wide variety of food rewards for your dog can help increase your dog’s motivation to work for food.
While a nice variety of treats can be helpful, it is also important to make sure the bulk of your dog’s food intake per day is a balanced diet and not treats. If you need to dispense a lot of treats throughout the day, incorporate some of your dog’s regular food into your treat pouch to help make sure your dog is getting the right balance of nutrients throughout the day. You also need to consider your dog’s total daily calorie intake to make sure that your training program is not resulting in an overweight dog.
Know how many calories your dog should be eating per day and stick to this limit. If you don’t know how many calories your dog should eat per day, you can use the following tool (click on the image to open up a new webpage with the calculator from Pet Nutrition Alliance) or consult your dog’s veterinarian.
How To Find The Highest Value Food Reward
Finding your dogs favorite food rewards may take some trials with different treats. But, while dogs are opportunistic scavengers and typically will eat whenever food is offered, dogs are most motivated to eat when they are hungry.
I am sure you can all relate to the following two scenarios:
Scenario One: You just went out to eat with a friend. You went to a restaurant that you love and you let yourself indulge. You return home to find that someone you live with has made your favorite dessert/snack food. They offer you some and you hesitate. It is your favorite, but you are just so full. You might take a single bite, but even though it is your favorite, you are not highly motivated to eat right now.
Scenario Two: You just finished a 10+ mile hike and are (figuratively) starving. You get home and your fridge is pretty empty. So you grab the leftovers that last night were just so-so. As you bite into them, you are surprised to find that they actually taste better leftover than fresh. Or maybe you are just so hungry that any food would taste delicious. If someone offered you your least favorite vegetable right now, you would probably eat that happily if there was nothing else available.
Keep this in mind when scheduling training sessions. Often, the best time for positive reinforcement based training with food rewards is before a meal. This could mean planning daily walks with your reactive dog before you feed them lunch or dinner. Or it could even mean that you feed them meals during walks, using their regular kibble as a positive reinforcer. Just make sure to carry along a couple of higher-value treats for really challenging situations.
Using all food as a reward is a big part of Dr. Sophia Yin’s learn to earn program, which is especially great for puppies, new dogs, and dogs with behavior concerns.
“Dogs who get their food for free out of their bowls are often picky about when they eat—although most probably eat more than they need to and are overweight or obese. To get them motivated to eat when you want to use food as the reward, you have to make the resource more valued—limit its availability to build demand. If your dog’s healthy and not interested in eating, then feed him less for a day or two. The rule is that he gets only what he’s willing to work for (vs. giving the rest of the food to him for free!). Pretty soon he’ll realize the free-food tree has dried up and he now has to start working for his keep.”
But again, whether you use your dog’s regular food or other treats for training, make sure to calculate all foods into your dog’s total calorie intake. We don’t want your dog gaining weight just because you are doing more training and positive reinforcement.
Of my own two dogs, Sasha will work for her food in just about any scenario. She is very food motivated. But Glia will only work for her dog food in low stress/low-distraction situations. For more distracting or anxiety-producing situations, she needs a bigger reward. So I typically carry a few different types of food rewards in my treat pouch.
And if you are working on counter-conditioning/desensitizing your dog to a specific trigger, I recommend saving your highest value treat for pairing with that trigger.
Finding Your Dog’s Favorite Foods
Okay, so what do you do if your dog won’t work for their kibble or they are really picky about their treats? You may have to think outside of the box by making food rewards more interactive or incorporating toys and more praise into the rewards.
This part is fun! It is time to set up some taste tests for your dog. Have you seen those tik tok videos of dogs choosing which food they want to eat? Set up up a trial like that with your own dog.
Use this fun YouTube video for inspiration:
I don’t recommend carrying raw meat to training sessions, but the following are some items to consider for food rewards for your dog:
*I did put a couple of affiliate links below. I am an Amazon affiliate and earn with qualifying purchases. These purchases help support things like web hosting for this blog.
- Your dog’s kibble: Whatever you feed your dog in a bowl can be fed from a treat pouch
- Training Treats: Charlie Bear’s are a nice low-calorie option wtih only 3 calories per treat)
- Soft treats (I like having treats that have a lot of smell and can be ripped up into smaller pieces. I used to use Canine Carry Outs. Not the healthiest, I know. But they are budget friendly and rip up easily. Right now, I have switched to Tricky Treats instead as Glia is on a hydrolyzed diet.)
- Meat: Shredded chicken, diced up hot dogs, and other meats can work as really high value treats for many dogs.
- Cheese: Cheese can also be cubed up into small pieces. Kraft singles tear into small pieces easily. And you can even consider using spray cheese from a can for good continuous administration when needed. Just be cautious, as cheese can be high calorie.
- Vegetables: Some dogs really like the crunch of vegetables. These are healthy treats and carrying carrots, green beans or other raw vegetables around in a treat pouch is pretty easy and clean. If you need a lower calorie treat option and your dog doesn’t like vegetables raw, consider cooking them first.
- Canned Dog (or cat) Food: While you have to get a little more creative about feeding canned food while training, many dogs really like canned dog and cat foods. You can use a squeeze tube to dispense the food during training sessions. Eileen and Dogs has a nice blog post about using squeeze tubes.
- Peanut Butter Tube: Like the squeeze tube of canned dog or cat food, peanut butter can be squeezed into your dog’s mouth. In fact, you can purchase little squeeze pouches of peanut butter. But again remember, this is a higher calorie option. And always make sure your peanut butter does not contain xylitol (which is toxic to dogs).
So take some time to find what your dog really likes. Save those high reward treats for challenging behaviors. And then use the lower level treats basic obedience and training in areas of low distraction.
Get a Training Treat Pouch
Since you are going to be carrying food treats around with you everywhere for the next few months (or years), you might as well invest in something to carry those treats around. You could use the pocket of your jackets or pants, but just be careful. If you leave your jacket somewhere your dog can access it, some dogs will chew through the fabric and destroy pockets in a search of the food smell. Not that that Glia would ever do this…. haha, but your dog might.
For a while after the destruction of two jacket pockets, I transitioned to using a cost-effective and simple Chuck-it Treat Tote (image and link below).
But last year, I upgraded to a super classy “wink, wink” fanny pack from Wal-Mart. It can hold plenty of treats in the zipper top flap (the zipper you can see the most easily in the photo below), a dog poop bag in an outer pocket, and still, contain my phone and keys in the main fanny pack compartment. I have used it for over a year and some seams are starting to come apart. But I think it held up well for a $6 purchase. Although I purchased my fanny pack at Walmart, there are similar fanny packs available on Amazon.
It really doesn’t matter what you choose to carry your dog’s food rewards in, but just make sure they are readily available and easy to reach when you need them for training, behavior modification, counter-conditioning, etc. And bring them along on every walk, hike, or other opportunities you have to train your dog.
Alternatives to Food Rewards
As mentioned above, some dogs don’t care about food as much as others. So get creative in your options for positive reinforcement. Sniff breaks, praise, a game of fetch, and more can all be used as rewards as an alternative to or in addition to food rewards. Since this blog post is getting a little long, if you have a dog that would benefit from fewer food rewards, check out this article by PetMD.
Action Step: Go and Find Your Dog’s Favorite Treat
Alright, now it’s time for you to go and find your dog’s favorite treat. And once you find it, let us know what your dog loves in the comments section below.
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