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Food Rewards in Training

Training With Food: Part 2

When, Where, and How


The next step in effective use of food in training is to consider the when, where, and how that food will be delivered.

When: Criteria and Timing

Reinforcement drives behavior: dogs repeat behaviors that get them what they want. Our job is to make the behaviors we want produce the rewards our dogs want. 

If you call your dog's name, what do you want their response to be?

a. Sit

b. Stop doing a problematic behavior

c. Turn their head towards you

While this may seem like a silly example, we can fall into bad habits, like using their name when they're "not listening" to a cue like sit, when they're barking at the neighbor's dog, and when we want their attention.

We can avoid confusing the dog by choosing what behavior gets the treat - that's our criteria. For this example, the criteria that gets the food is (c) turn their head towards you. 

Your timing is just as important. When is the right time to give the food?

a. Before they look at you

b. The moment they look at you

c. After they've looked at you and looked back at a distraction

Since the dog is going to repeat behaviors that get the food, the answer is (b) the moment they look at you. Easy if you're right next to them with food in your hand. Much harder if you are on the other side of the room and the food is in the kitchen.

This is why we use markers. A marker is a consistent sound that tells the dog the instant they earned the food. The marker can be a clicker or it can be a word, like "Yes." A marker has two rules:

  1. The same each time

  2. Always followed by food

"Good girl/boy/dog" is not a good marker, because you probably say it outside of training sessions and not just for training. It can be used as praise, but should be separate from the marker.

Back to the example of your dog's name. That might look like this:

  1. Dog is barking at squirrel in yard

  2. You call their name through the window

  3. Dog turns toward you

  4. You say "Yes!"

  5. You find the treats and give one to your dog (bonus, many dogs will come running when they hear the marker, even if you haven't said "come!")

You don't have unlimited time between the marker and the treat, so it's helpful to have a few small containers around the house (out of your dog's reach, of course).

A marker buys you time between the behavior and delivering the food, so you can catch good behavior even at a distance. 

Where: Placement

This is one that doesn't get as much attention as it should. Where you deliver the food is also going to determine where your dog does the behavior.

Example: You're working on teaching your dog to go to a mat and remain there until you release them. They go to the mat, lie down, and you feed them from your hand, away from the mat.

Your dog may start to struggle with the concept of remaining on the mat, because all the food comes from wherever you are! You can fix this by always tossing the food on the mat. 

Example: You're teaching leash manners and want your dog to always walk on your left side. You reward them from your right hand and your dog meets you halfway, getting the food in front of you. I've seen dogs that quickly learned to walk sideways in front of their person!

An easy fix is to make sure the food is always delivered in the spot you want the dog to be, at your side.

How: Delivery

In the early stages of training, food often comes directly from our hand. This is helpful for the basics, like sit, down, and leash training. But as with the example of the mat training, there are times it can interfere with the training plan. There are a few alternatives to hand feeding.

Drop or Toss. Dropping the treat on the ground or tossing the treat in a specific direction. This can be helpful when you can't get your dog's attention, but don't want them fixating on something else. Example: Tossing food ahead of you while walking, to move away from another dog.

Scatter. Similar to drop or toss, scattering a handful of food on the ground not only shifts your dog's attention away from someone/something, but keeps their attention a little longer. Example: Scattering a handful of food on the ground while another dog walks by.

Pre-planned Placement. Placing a reward before bringing your dog into the area can be an effective way to create a positive association to a location. Example: A stuffed Kong inside the car or crate. 

Remote feeder. A pricier option, but beneficial in some situations, remote feeders like the Treat n' Train or Train and Praise deliver treats from a device that you control with a remote. Example: Food delivered away from the front door when you come home. 

What is right for your training plan depends on the behavior you want and where and when you need it. 

Later in your program, we'll discuss when and how to start using non-food rewards.

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