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Using Food for Dog Behavior Modification

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Food is a potent motivator for behavior modification in dogs.

Food is a potent motivator for behavior modification in dogs.

Changing Dog Behavior With Food: Understanding Reactivity in Dogs

Dog behavior modification involving food is almost an art. Those who have "crossed over" from balanced training and have decided to embrace force-free training and force-free behavior modification, have been addicted to the stunning results. If you own an aggressive or reactive dog, you may want to learn what may be happening to him during his outbursts, so the benefits of using food can be better outlined.

It can be quite clear to you what happens when your dog is reactive or aggressive. Most likely, he would get really tense, and if he is sent over his threshold level, you'll likely see him bark, growl, lunge and even attempt to bite if he feels the need to. These are the visible changes that are most obvious to all us, but what about the more subtle changes occurring inside the dog, perhaps even at a chemical level?

A dog who is exposed to a trigger likely goes into the fight or flight response. What happens during this response? I will never forget when our physics professor told us about the topic of the day: "the fight and flight response."

He started off talking very slowly and calmly in such a way that we were almost nodding off. Then suddenly, out of the blue, he slammed the big book he had in front of him against the desk with all the force of his big biceps. We all startled and look at each other as if the professor had gone insane. "This, my students, is the perfect example of the fight and flight response, how did it feel?"

We certainly felt jumpy and most of us closed our eyes as to protect them. He later went on to explain how a cascade of involuntary events meant to help the body deal with threatening circumstances takes place when the fight or flight response is activated.

Starting in the amygdala, which activates the pituitary gland, the body is bombarded by a sudden release of catecholamines which consist of hormones and neurotranmitters such as cortisone, adrenaline and noradrenaline. The release of these hormones creates a chain reaction of bodily events both in humans and dogs.

These changes are meant to help animals and humans get ready to action in order to survive from a perceived danger. Dogs who are reactive will therefore have an increased heart rate so that blood is spread to the muscles allowing them to sprint into action. The increased breathing is meant to increase the flow of oxygen-rich air into the lungs, while the dilated pupils allow to see with more clarity.

Interestingly, the dog's appetite may be suppressed as well because the blood flows away from the skin and intestines and towards the muscles for action. This explains why many dogs refuse treats when they are over threshold.

On top of that, dogs may experience a lack of impulse control and have a lowered bite threshold (out of panic they may bite more easily). In this state, a dog cannot learn nor cognitively function. Arachnophobics: imagine solving a math problem when a tarantula is crawling on your arm!

However, there is more to it. According to James O' Heare in his book The Canine Aggression Workbook, fear is known for causing the production of adrenalin, whereas, anger causes the secretion of adrenalin and another hormone known as noradrenalin. This chemical bath over time can become addicting, which ultimately explains why you see aggressive behaviors repeat over and over.

And last but not least, let's not forget the operant component. The act of being reactive has a consequence which can be reinforcing to the dog. If every time Rover lunges towards the mailman and the mailman leaves, he has learned that his behavior has a consequence that makes it worthy of repeating.

Even for the dog that retreats in a corner, the consequence of staying safe and nothing happening to him can be worthy of repeating.

More than just yummy: There's more than reinforcement happening when you give your dog treats when dealing with behavioral problems.

More than just yummy: There's more than reinforcement happening when you give your dog treats when dealing with behavioral problems.

Using Treats for Dog Behavior Modification

The so-called balanced trainers may disdainfully label positive reinforcement trainers as "cookie trainers" or "food trainers," but often they're missing the whole concept of what is really happening when you are using food for dog behavior modification.

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We are not just rewarding behaviors we want; there is so much more going on than that. Let's take a look of what is really happening when you are using food for training your dog.

Rewarding Good Behaviors

Yes, this is the first noticeable and most obvious use of treats for dog training and behavior modification. It doesn't take rocket science to understand; anybody can see this. This is scientifically proven. Thorndike's Law of Effect claims "“Responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation."

B. F. Skinner further added a new term into the Law of Effect:

"Behavior which is reinforced tends to be repeated (i.e. strengthened); behavior which is not reinforced tends to die out-or be extinguished (i.e. weakened)."

Indeed, dogs are opportunistic beings and soon learn what behaviors produce a satisfying effect and tend to repeat them. So if your dog likes to lunge at other dogs, but instead you ask him to sit and reward him with treats worthy of all the attention in the world, he'll be more and more likely over time to sit rather than lunge.

Changing Emotions

As mentioned, much more is happening than rewarding good behavior when you use treats for behavior modification. When you give your dog a tasty treat the moment he sees a trigger, repetition after repetition, you are changing his emotions to the trigger, and eventually you will obtain what is known as a CER (a conditioned emotional response).

You may literally see your dog's eyes brighten up at the sight of the trigger and even manifest a tail wag, when done correctly.

Important Chemical Changes

Food plays an important role in the dog's brain chemistry. World known dog trainer Victoria Stillwell claims "Food has a powerful effect on brain chemistry which encourages dogs to learn and helps them overcome emotional states such as fear and anxiety (the root cause of most aggression)."

Using Food Correctly in Dog Behavior Modification

Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Karen Overall claims "Rewarding dogs with food treats is an art." And as an art, it needs to be done correctly. There are a few things you may do wrong creating set backs or no effect. Following are some important tips,

Go High-Value

Skip those stale cookies you have in the cookie jar from several months ago, and also skip your dog's regular kibble. In order to change emotions and behavior, you'll need food that is high value enough to help your dog overcome the instinctive push to react and resist that addictive chemical bath of hormones James O' Heare describes.

Soft and Small

The best food to use for behavior modification is soft food that can be eaten quickly. Crunchy food takes too long to eat and many dogs don't find it appealing enough. You'll feel relieved when you discover that small portions are enough. Use just a pea-sized morsel.

People are often amazed when they see how many pieces I can get out of half a hot dog! APDT (the Association of Professional Dog Trainers) claims "Dogs don’t care how big each cookie is; they’re more impressed by how many they get." Examples of soft foods dogs like the best are hot dogs, roasted chicken, steak, string cheese, baked pieces of chicken or beef livers.

Under Threshold

Remember how we discussed how dogs often lose their appetite when they are too worried? After all, during the flight-or-fight response, there are more important things to think about than eating! This happens in humans as well; you would care less about stopping by McDonalds for a sundae if you are worried about an impending danger.

So in order to effectively use treats, you must find a distance where your dog is under threshold and more relaxed and able to take treats. When your dog is under threshold, you are desensitizing him to the trigger because you are presenting it in a less intimidating way, and at the same time, by giving treats, you are counterconditioning him, which means you are changing his emotions about the trigger.

Changing Emotions

As described, the process of changing a dog's emotions about a trigger is known as "counterconditioning." In other words, we are creating a pleasant feeling (and reaction) towards a trigger (or situation) that was once feared or disliked. A few examples of techniques using counterconditioning include Leslie McDevitt's Look at That Game and Jean Donaldson's Open Bar Closed Bar technique.

In most cases, in order to to change the emotions such as fear or stress, the dog doesn't need to be asked to do any particular behavior, all that is needed is to create positive associations with the trigger. So you would feed the dog just for acknowledging the trigger.

Changing Behavior

Food can also be used to reinforce behavior, by finding an alternate, incompatible behavior to the unwanted one. For instance, if a dog is reactive towards bikes and lunges towards them out of predatory drive, you can train him to sit and reinforce him heavily for sitting which is incompatible with the lunging—a dog cannot lunge if it's sitting!

Usually, this method is used for dogs who aren't preoccupied about a trigger and emotions aren't in the way, such as a dog acting out of predatory drive. However, once a dog's emotions have changed, it can also be used for those dogs who were previously fearful/stressed.

Preventing Bribery

It's very important that if you decide to reinforce a behavior that you do so without bribing. This means, you won't be showing the treat as if saying to the dog "Look, you will get this if you sit nicely." This teaches the dog to operate only when food is in sight.

While it's true that trainers use a method known as "luring" to train dogs, this is only used briefly and the treat in sight quickly fades. Soon the dog is asked to perform the command without having a treat in sight. For more on this read the article: luring versus bribery.

Interrupting Behavior

Dogs are habitual creatures; once they start a behavior pattern, they'll feel compelled to continue it if there's some sort of reinforcement or self-reinforcement going on. You can interrupt unwanted behavior with long-lasting food inserted inside a Kong.

For instance, if your dog got into the habit of barking for attention when you speak on the phone, the moment the phone rings, tell your dog to settle on a mat and give him a stuffed Kong that will last long enough as the phone call.

100 Opportunities

I know I said not to use a dog's kibble for behavior modification, but this is because the dog is faced with his triggers and needs more incentive, but what about using kibble at home, to reward 100 good behaviors? Just think about that—your dog's food is there sitting in the bowl, wasted, when you can use it during the day to reward 100 or more behaviors you like!

Get a portion of your dog's kibble, place it in a treat bag and put it to good use! For instance, if your dog jumps, use a kibble to reward him when he sits to greet you, if your dog hears noises that makes him a bit uncomfortable, toss a kibble right after the noise occurs even before he has a chance to bark.

The noise soon becomes a cue that something good is about to happen and eventually your dog may even look forward to it! And don't forget to use food to reward those spontaneous behaviors you want to capture!

If you reward your dog taking a bow as he wakes up, he'll be more likely to repeat it in the future and then you can put it on cue! Many dogs love their kibble enough to respond to it when in a quiet environment with little distractions going on.

Pair it with Praise

Make it a good habit of pairing praise with the food. If every time your dog does something right you tell him "good boy" followed by a treat, he'll soon learn to love the words "good boy." You can then use "good boy" alone when you don't have treats on you and your dog will figure out he did something right.

As seen, there is so much you can do with food that it's totally worth it to use it to train behavior and change emotions. For less than dollars a day, you can really change your dog's behavior and make those beneficial chemical changes occur in the brain.

*Note: while food is often used in force-free training, it's not the exclusive reward. Many trainers use what are known as "life rewards." To learn more about life rewards, read about the Premack Principle.

For further reading

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 08, 2013:

Thanks Eiddwen, I hope it works out! Kind regards!

Eiddwen from Wales on October 08, 2013:

Passing this very useful hub onto my family ;I am sure it will be very useful.


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 05, 2013:

Hello Midget, thanks for stopping by! In our classes, we move to an intermittent schedule of reinforcement once our dogs have learned the trick, but we never wean them completely off.

Michelle Liew from Singapore on October 05, 2013:

I agree! Treats should be weaned off once the animal knows what is expected. Great tips on using treats correctly. so many jut do so for the sake of it!

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