John's Natural Dog Training ~ Food Training ExplainedFood Training Dogs

Bell Rings - Dog Salivates

by John M. Rubin
Using food as a reward

Food training to reward dogs really came about because of research done in the early part of the 20th century involving digestion. This research ended up becoming a study by Ivan Pavlov regarding Classical Conditioning.

I am sure you have heard the saying, “Bell rings, dog salivates". Pavlov's experiment proved that all animals could be trained, or conditioned, to expect a consequence on the results of previous experience. Wild animal trainers have always used food training.

But, with the publication of Pavlov's theory, professional dog trainers finally had research they could refer to as the basis of their training methods.

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov

A Russian, and later Soviet, physiologist, psychologist, and physician, Pavlov was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1904 for research pertaining to the digestive system. Pavlov is widely known for first describing the phenomenon of Classical Conditioning.

Pavlov began pairing the sound of a bell with giving dog’s meat powder. He found that even when the meat powder was not presented, the dog would eventually salivate after hearing the bell. Since the meat powder naturally results in salivation, these two variables are called the unconditioned stimulus and the conditioned stimulus. The bell and the salivation are not naturally occurring; the dog was conditioned to respond to the bell. Therefore, the bell is considered the conditioned stimulus and the salivation in response to the bell is the conditioned response.

Other Studies

In an operant conditioning chamber - also known as the Skinner Box - is a laboratory apparatus used in the experimental analysis of behavior to study animal behavior. The operant conditioning chamber was created by B. F. Skinner while he was a graduate student at Harvard University where he received his Masters in 1930 and doctorate in 1931. It is used to study both operant conditioning and classical conditioning.

Most professional dog trainers now use food and clicker as a training aid. Pairing food with clicker training is basically combining Operant Conditioning with Classical Conditioning.

In a nutshell, Operant Conditioning is the modification of behavior brought about over time by the consequences of that behavior. Distinguished from Pavlovian Classical Conditioning, Operant Conditioning focuses on voluntary behavior explained by its consequences. Pavlovian classical conditioning focuses on involuntary behavior triggered by antecedents; something that happens or exists before something else happens.

During studies involving Operant Conditioning it was discovered that once a reward/reinforcer, like food, was removed, the subject eventually stopped performing the task. It was also discovered that even when the reward was given every time, the subject could become less stimulated and the responses inconsistent.

Food Vs. Fear?

Advocates of food training mistakenly believe I am against food training. I am not. But, I know it is not necessary. One more thing; food training advocates would have you believe that trainers who do not use food must therefore being using fear, force and pain compliance. Not necessarily true. And, as a matter of fact, many trainers who use shock-collars also use food rewards.

Many trainers strictly use food as a reward during training. I simply submit that using only food training is extremely limiting. For most dogs, once the food is no longer present, the stimulus for responding to the command will not be there and therefore they will often find other distractions more stimulating. Another problem with this method is there are many dogs that are simply not motivated by food. Lastly, there are those dogs that are highly stimulated by food and food training can contribute to an unhealthy obsession to food; this can lead to other behavior issues.


Function: noun Etymology: Middle English, morsel given to a beggar, bribe, from Anglo-French, morsel 1 : money or favor given or promised in order to influence the judgment or conduct of a person in a position of trust 2 : something that serves to induce or influence.

My opinion is that using food is akin to a bribe which is fairly mechanical in practice. As I said, clicker/treat training is fine and can work for some. But, why place yourself in a situation with your dog where you will always need to carry these items with you? Your voice, and the leash and collar will most likely always be with you when you need them. Your hands are available for hand signals and petting. When there are physical limitations we can always adopt other methods that are just as effective.

I do occasionally use food for behavior modification. When a dog is stealing food, either from the table, floor or a child, we can use food to correct the behavior. Here food is an excellent tool, because the dog is highly stimulated by its presence. Practicing with food is a great way to teach your dog’s not to attack your hand whenever you give them biscuits. Some dogs work better when lures are used as they learn to use agility equipment. I also will sometimes use food to sharpen (not teach) obedience commands for competition. It really depends on the dog.

Using food is a great way to introduce your shy or fearful puppy to the vet's office. A few treats while walking your dog in and out of rooms can be very effective in reducing anxiety. It can help draw your dog’s focus away from the stressful environment. This is also highly effective when nails are being clipped and shots are being administered. Peanut butter works great because it takes a while for the dog to work through it.

Food Training Gone Awry

Because most people do not understand how dogs view food they often unintentionally reinforce bad behavior. Owners are left in the dark about when using food is appropriate and when it is inappropriate because dog trainers often fail to explain the way dogs think and learn. Indeed, today's onslaught of new career dog trainers often do not even understand themselves why food does and does not work and under what circumstances it can best be utilized. I frequently observe other trainer's classes and notice their methods are simply an exercise in giving dogs treats as rewards no matter if they have completed the task or not. Our classes are often full of drop-outs from other trainer's obedience courses.

The timing of the treat must be perfect. Teaching clients to use treats as rewards during training in a manner that reinforces the command is difficult. For Instance: If the dog did a great "stay" command and you reward after the release, you are rewarding your dog for getting up.


A very good client of ours was having a problem with her young dog. We had trained her previous dog and she is a great student and incredible owner. She complained that her dog was still having accidents in the house. The way she described it was, "he does not seem to want to empty his bladder outside, so he comes in the house to finish." I know my client and I know her dog. I suspected it was most likely a medical issue. But she was unsure and thought it might be behavioral. So, she decided to take her dog to a very well-known Vet Behavioral Specialist her regular vet recommended. I sighed, encouraged her to do what made her feel right, and off she went.

I received a call from her within the week. The specialist, after approximately 15 minutes of discussion, diagnosed her dog as being overly submissive. He began instructing her that by giving Sarge treats whenever he went outside and indeed every time he did something right, this would boost his confidence which could help resolve the issue over time. My clients reaction was swift and decisive and she replied to him "why would I throw food at my dog when I can give him my love?" She then stood up and left.

Final medical diagnosis - Sarge has an underdeveloped bladder which caused incontinence. He was still growing and the vet, who referred her to the expensive specialist in the first place, felt medication would most likely resolve the problem.

The Lunging Dog

One day I saw an owner walking her Rottweiler on-leash at a nearby park. Her dog would lunge and bark aggressively at other dogs that came anywhere near them. Without fail, and with each and every lunge, she would reach into her pocket and feed her dog a treat. No doubt she thought that the food offering might eventually distract her dog's attention away from the other dog.

What she did not realize was that she was in fact reinforcing the aggressive behavior by rewarding her dog every time it lunged and barked. She was good at it too as her timing was nearly perfect!

Getting Your Dogs Attention

I read a website article where a fairly well-known trainer offers this advice: "Food in your mouth, spitting it at your dog; an excellent exercise for teaching attention. It gets the dog to concentrate directly on your face, not your hands or pocket. Do this as a separate exercise, until your dog understands that he must watch your face.

Also, DON'T let them pick up the food from the floor or ground. If you do, they will learn that they don't have to catch the treat. They can just wait and pick it up. And don't let them come back later to clean up."

I don't even know what to say except that, for dogs with limited vision, this would be totaling insulting.

In any event, ridiculous in my opinion and I cannot find any reason for doing this as there are about 100 other ways to get your dog’s attention.

Please feel free to read my article on How Dogs Learn. This may answer many of your questions and help you decide which method of training you think will work best for you and your dog.

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