We “cookie trainers” get a lot of flak from people who don’t understand the right way to use food as a motivator in rewards-based dog training. Opponents assert that dogs trained our way are doomed to suffer an unhealthy future, but that doesn’t have to be the case.
I encourage my students to make sure that none of their dog’s daily calories are given out for free. That’s when many of them tell me that they already ask their dogs to sit and wait before they put the food dish down.
That’s a decent start, but what if we were to put most of our dog’s kibble into our training bag and dole it out piece by patient piece for good behavior? I should note that it was from training and behavior expert Dr. Ian Dunbar that I first got the notion that every piece of food placed in a dog’s food dish is really a wasted reward.
Still, in order for a food reward to increase the likelihood of our dog repeating a behavior, it has to be something our dog wants. The more they want it, the higher value the reward is, and the more likely the dog will be to work for us in the future.
Some dogs don’t really care for their regular kibble enough to make it rewarding. Others will work for just about any morsel. It’s important to match the value of the food reward (in the dog’s view) with the level of difficulty of the behavior.
Students often want to know what else (besides their dog’s regular kibble) they can use for food rewards. Here are my top ten favorite healthy options:
- If your dog isn’t wild about their regular kibble, try “super-scenting” it by keeping a week’s worth of it in a giant zipper bag along with strong smelling sandwich meat or cheese. This way, you can just measure out the proper daily amount from the bag and use that as rewards without necessarily feeding your dog the actual meat or cheese you scented the kibble with.
- You might try purchasing a variety of flavors or even brands of dog food. Sometimes a dog will work for novel kibble although they won’t work for the dog food they have been served day in and day out.
- If there are situations for which super-scented kibble or even other brands of dry food just don’t cut it as a reward for your dog, you might check out some of the high quality, healthy, freeze-dried raw dog foods currently on the market, including Stella & Chewy’s. Many dogs go wild for these!
- Another type of nutritionally balanced dog food that many dogs respond to as if it were a tasty treat is the moist dog food that comes in a summer sausage-like log, such as Natural Balance. This type of dog food is easy to chop into tiny cubes, or carry in a chunk, flicking little pieces off as needed.
- There are so many interesting proteins available in wet dog food these days, including pheasant, rabbit and venison, to name a few. You could mix a teaspoon of one of these into a bag of regular, dry kibble to create a more interesting (yet still healthy and nutritionally balanced) soft treat. You could also put the wet dog food into a disposable pastry bag and squeeze little dabs out for your dog to lick up. (I’d recommend resting the pastry bag in a plastic freezer bag within your regular treat pouch when not in use to minimize mess.)
- If you’re one of those lucky pet parents whose dog loves fruits and veggies, you might be able to use treats like carrots, cucumber, melon, strawberries, blueberries and watermelon (to name a number of things various students’ dogs have gone nuts for over the years.)
- I’ve always been a fan of plain, baked (or boiled, or microwaved) chicken as a healthy, economical food reward that most dogs love. Now that we think one of my own dogs may have developed a sensitivity to chicken, I don’t tend to prepare cooked chicken as often for students dogs these days.
- If cooking for your dog seems like too much work, freeze-dried meats may make a more convenient alternative. I find that many dogs love Merrick’s “Texas Hold-ems” (freeze-dried lamb lung.) It’s easy to carry around in a pocket all day, doesn’t smell very strong, and is reasonably healthy.
- There are a number of brands of soft treats that most dogs seem to love. Some of my favorites include Canz Real Meat Treats (especially venison), little bite-sized Zuke’s pellets (in chicken, beef or peanut butter flavors) and Wellness WellBites.
- Let’s face it—some of us just like our twinkies. If your dog is driven by less healthy food reward options you can still get away with using your standard “junk food” level dog treats. Just use even smaller tidbits. Many dogs are willing to work for the tiniest of tidbits.
I don’t want to give people the impression that food is the only useful motivator for dogs. We can use touch, praise, play and real-life consequences (like access to guests) as rewards, too. Nothing in life is free—not even ear scritches and belly rubs.
Of course, if using food rewards and your dog isn’t yet reliable with housetraining, you may need to use food rewards around regular mealtimes in order not to upset their bathroom schedule. Still, if your dog values food, the quickest way to their heart may very well be through their stomach.