Using Food and Treats for Training Dogs

When you welcome a new puppy or dog into your home, when you introduce new tricks, or when you need to adjust unwanted behaviors of your longtime companion, training is an important tool, and can help create a strong human-animal bond. The preferred training method is positive reinforcement training, which often involves treats or food rewards.

Is it OK to use “people food” for treats during training?

Commercially produced dog treats are a good option to provide positive reinforcement during the training process. In addition, some whole foods or “people” foods can be good options to support positive reinforcement training.

Often, “high value” treats are most helpful during a training session; however, many of these treats are also high in calories. If not carefully monitored, these treats can quickly add up to extra calories, which can unbalance the diet and lead to unwanted weight gain if continued long term.

While some foods are acceptable to feed to dogs, it is important to know that not all foods are safe to feed, and some should be avoided.

Foods that are safe and often enjoyed by dogs include: apples, cheese, cooked eggs, lettuce, carrots, zucchini, green beans, de-strung celery, pasta, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, seedless watermelon, cooked meats, and cooked seafood. Offer these foods without seasonings, and ideally choose low-calorie foods. Finding what your dog considers a treat may take some testing at home.

Foods that should be avoided due to potential risk of harm include: alcohol, chocolate, macadamia nuts, garlic, onions, grapes, raisins, salty snack foods, high-fat snacks, moldy cheeses, and any food with xylitol artificial sweetener such as some peanut butters.

If you are not sure if the food is safe, talk to your veterinary healthcare team or consult the ASPCA Poison Control website or the Pet Poison Helpline website for further information.

Why does the vet recommend only a 10% treat allowance when training my dog?

It is important to keep calories from treats within 10% of your dog’s total calorie intake to prevent excessive nutrient intake and to help prevent deficiencies. So, if your dog eats about 550 calories per day, then 495 calories should come from a complete and balanced diet appropriate for your dog’s life stage, and 55 calories can come from treats.  

The easiest way to avoid over-treating is by measuring out treats and ensuring that you stay within your dog’s 10% allowance. If feeding commercial treats, check how many calories each treat provides and set aside exactly the correct amount. If feeding whole foods, find general calorie counts in the USDA FoodData Central food database online, estimate how many calories your treats provide, and ensure you stay within the 10% treat allowance.

Below is a list of common foods that may be given as treats for dogs, with specific amounts and calories (kcal).

How else can I use food when training? Can I use other rewards as well?

Your dog’s degree of food motivation will determine what food you can use to train them. Some dogs respond to their own regular food, and others may need more “high value” treat encouragement.

You can try using your dog’s regular kibble as positive reinforcement. Using kibble as a treat is beneficial because it is complete and balanced, and so will help prevent deficiencies if you have a treat-heavy training day. However, even when using kibble, keep training treats within reason. You may not unbalance the diet when giving complete and balanced kibbles, but you can give too many calories, leading to unwanted weight gain.

If you find a low-calorie treat that your dog really enjoys, you may be able to give a lot more of it.

If you find a low-calorie treat that your dog really enjoys, you may be able to give a lot more of it. Some dogs enjoy carrots, green beans, celery, and watermelon. Test out the low-calorie safe foods from the list above to help you find which low-calorie foods will motivate your dog.

Also, consider intermittent reinforcement as another tool to solidify training. Once your dog is regularly performing a task, they may not always need to get a high-value treat as a reward. You could sometimes offer pets and affection, a lower-value food, or a lower-calorie food on a rotational basis.

So, when your dog does the task, one time they get their favorite treat, one time they get their favorite belly rubs, and one time they get their favorite squeaky dog toy. The rotation, and the short successful training session, will provide the positive reinforcement that training doesn’t have to always be around food.

Do you have tips for using food to train a dog?

Dogs can be trained using encouragement, patience, and by consistently rewarding positive or desired behaviors. Do not use negative physical or verbal abuse; instead, ignore or redirect undesired behaviors.

For example, if a dog jumps up or barks to greet you, you may want to redirect them by teaching them to sit or hold a toy in their mouth to greet you. To do this, turn away when your dog jumps on you or barks, while encouraging your dog to sit or handing your dog a toy to hold in their mouth. Then provide a reward when your dog completes the desired behavior – either a treat or another reward such as physical attention, verbal praise, or favorite toys.

Food and attention rewards can be used in a stepwise manner: reward as the dog stops jumping and just stands, then reward as the dog sits. If the dog starts to jump again, redirect your dog to sitting and reward them when they sit, rather than punishing the undesired jumping behavior.

Are any foods off limits?

As discussed earlier, some foods should not be given as they are toxic to pets. It is also important to remember that some foods that are very tasty to dogs may also be very high in calories, and those extra calories can add up quickly. For example, sprayable cheese products and peanut butter are often considered very tasty and can be helpful in training, but they can also be very high in calories and should be used cautiously.

Also, if your dog has a diagnosed disease such as kidney disease, heart disease, or inflammatory bowel disease, some treats may not be appropriate for their condition. For dogs with kidney disease, low-phosphorus and low-protein treats are preferred, such as fruits and vegetables, while dogs with heart disease should avoid high salt treats. If your dog has a health condition, you should discuss any treats with your veterinarian to ensure they are appropriate.

What treats are recommended for training?

Treats that can be easily broken into many small pieces, small kibble, or low-calorie treats are usually recommended. However, keep in mind what treats motivate your dog and what rewards will provide the positive experience you are aiming for during your training session.