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How Do I Know If My Dog Is A Candidate For Food Rewards? When To Consider Alternative Reward Markers

Updated: Mar 30, 2022


Not all dogs are candidates for food rewards for training.

With the trend of positive only, and giving dogs treats for training, some folks may find that it may not be working out for them, or their dog...

AND THAT'S OKAY! There are many ways to train.

Does your dog ONLY listen if you have treats? Does he over- perform as soon as he hears the treat bag?

Does he growl, guard, or nip when treats are presented?

Let's take a look at who may fit the criteria for alternative reward markers.

Treat smart, tricksters, and food aggressive dogs fit the bill of those who should usually not be given treats while training.

I'll also discuss what to do if your dog isn't motivated by food, or is too shy to take treats.


How do I know if my dog is a candidate for food rewards?

  • "Treat smart"

These dogs know when there's a reward 'good enough' for their behavior.... And when there is not.

This can be doubled as selective listening, and set a tone for future failure.

Dog's are not dumb, they may pick their battles.. In their mind, thoughts may read:

"No treat, no listen."

  • "Tricksters"

These dogs that see commands as tricks only, and as soon as they see or even hear the word treat they start performing.

Have you ever seen a dog immediately sit and then roll over as soon as you hold up the treat bag?

Maybe he runs right to his bed and waits for his reward with only so much as hearing the magic treat drawer open.

Not all dogs in this category should have treats withheld for training, but if it becomes a habit of selectivity...

Then you may reconsider your reward marker.

Dogs that automatically listen are fantastic, they know what you expect of them.. but remember, training is not a series of tricks, they are commands and should be treated as such.

  • Food aggressive dogs

Also in this category are those who guard resources.

These dogs fit the bill to withhold treats during training.

Until their minds are reconditioned, they are in no shape to see food or treats as positive. They view it as an invaluable resource that they must protect at all costs.

Fearful dogs should also not be bribed with food to 'make things positive.' By building a bridge with food you can actually create more fear than trust. By puting food between them and their fear, this creates a fight or flight and undue pressure type of situation. It's better to build their confidence with various training techniques and experiences than using a valuable resource to pressure the dog. They could also eventually associate food with the negative thing they are afraid of and become accustomed to guarding their resources.


You shouldn't always use treats

I do not always use treats in training, even with my own dog... She fits into the trickster category, actually! And she is VERY treat smart.

The last point I want to make is that we live in the real world.... and so do our dogs.

So many trainers make the mistake of convincing dog owners that they need to train with 100% positive reinforcement and ALWAYS give treats to their dog.


We will not always have treats with us everywhere we go, and it shouldn't be a bribe to get our dogs to listen.

I prefer to build motivation and focus and then phase out treats so they are not even needed!

THAT is real world training.


For some dogs, treat rewards can actually do more harm than good

Some dogs may also do better with alternative reward markers such as:

  • Toys

  • Praise

  • Petting

Fearful dogs do especially well with praise and light petting/ pats. This also gets them used to touch.

I've found that high drive dogs tend to do better with toy rewards.

Rescue dogs or newly adopted puppies may be too shy to take one or the other of whichever you decide to offer, so having the skills and resources to figure out what motivates them for training is key.

It's best to evaluate the dog's personality and response to different rewards before dishing out the cookies for every command.

Some dog owners also find that their dogs just aren't motivated by treats/ food rewards and may struggle to train them.

So trying other methods may do wonders for their training goals.


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