Are we making our dogs fat by using food in training?

Okay the title is a trick question.  I would argue that yes some dogs are gaining too much weight because they are given too many treats, and perhaps high caloric treats in addition to their daily meals.  A dog that is even a few pounds overweight can be considered obese so it is really important that we do not end up with a very well trained pudgy dog.  Now, there are many dogs that are trained daily and are not fat.

So what is the secret then?  Follow the guidelines below so that you can continue to use treats in training while keeping your dog’s weight in check.

First off, let me explain why reward-based trainers use food so often in training.  Food is one of those things that any living being enjoys and needs.  If your dog is not food motivated as some people claim about their dogs it could be for several reasons, among them are:

1. Your dog has some stomach or GI upset (check with your vet).

2. You are overfeed your dog. Some dogs will actually leave food behind once they are satisfied – this might be your dog.

3. Your dog is really bored with the food you provide and thus eats only enough to keep going – sad

4. The food you give your dog might not agree with him or her.  See # 1.

So, I bet you that if you have your “not so motivated by food” dog skip a couple of meals you will find that now he is more interested in food. Dogs are opportunistic feeders as well as scavengers so in essence their genetic make-up leans more towards eating when you can, rather than having two square meals because they are lucky enough to live with us.


Food in training:  Food is considered really a TOP motivator.  There are others, of course, but in essence any thriving animal has an appetite so this is the main reason why most reward-based trainers use food when teaching new stuff.  Also, food is actually quite practical when it comes to offering a timely reward for behavior and timing is everything in training!

It is important though that when using food as a reinforcer (something your dog really wants or would work for) we keep in mind certain rules.

Rule # 1

You need to consider the amount of food used in training as part of your dog’s daily caloric intake and not in addition to.  In order to do this, you must know how much your dog is getting in treats. Use a measuring cup so that you know how many ounces are going into your training pouch before the session so at the end of the session, or outing you have an idea of how much food was dispensed.  Subtract that amount from your dog’s next meal.

Rule #2

Use your dog’s meals as part of their training chow.  There are a couple of caveats here: You cannot use your dog’s meal if you are feeding “raw” it is just too unpractical.  If you are using kibble (dry food) and your dog likes it you can use this in most trainings scenarios.  However, I would not recommend doing this if you are working on emotional issues such as fear, anxiety or aggression.   See below for more on this.  BTW, most kibble is actually not low in calories so check with your vet.


Besides putting in place rule #1, you can also use treats that are cut really small – the size of a pea. Some treats have only 3 calories per treat.   So, I am left thinking; why can’t we have tasty dessert with only 3 calories per bite????

Rule # 3

Choose your battles. Let me explain: If your dog has a stellar sit you do not need to pay your dog with a treat every time you ask and he sits.  Instead… you will ONLY pay for behaviors that your dog has learned well on occasion. We need to consider that when a dog has learned a behavior well- it can perform 9 out of 10 times in that setting. Now, the dog might not perform this same behavior that well in a new novel setting.  These things must be taken into consideration.  So in essence when your dog is acing behaviors just pay occasionally. NOTE: If you stop reinforcing your dog or the dog is not being reinforced in some way by the environment the behavior will cease to take place.  It will become extinct.

All things being equal when a dog is learning new stuff pay handsomely. You will pay for every correct repetition until the dog has reached proficiency in a given setting.  Also, follow #4…

Rule #4

This rule dependents on what you are working on what kind of food you’re are dolling out.  If I am working with a dog that has fear issues or aggression I am not showing up with kibble because I really want to make an impression on this dog.

Rule # 5

If a dog is not motivated to work we can’t train it. Period. It makes much more sense to work with food with a dog that is really hungry.  I suggest then, that when going to class, going for a long training session or when working on something really hard such as coming when called you do not feed your dog its meal.  Instead make sure your dog is hungry so that it is willing to work for you.  Remember: No motivation. No training.

Rule #6

Think beyond food for training. Ah, if only folks would play more with their dogs so that play could be used in training that would make me very happy.  Most people unfortunately, barely scratch the surface of playing games with their dogs that makes them both giddy which means this avenue is not available as readily as a reward in training.

However, with a little pre-thought and imagination, you can effectively use life rewards in addition to food in training.  It works like this: ANYTHING  your dog wants that is not dangerous to your dog can and should be used a reward in training.  Typical examples are: having the dog wait polity at the door without rushing out and then letting your dog out the door into the great out of doors.  Giving your dog his favorite toy that is kept out of reach, access to dog play for waiting to be released.  You get the picture, right?

Finally, a word about praise and petting. Yes, we humans love to talk and talk but guess what?  Our dogs are not really verbal.  We believe dogs get excited when we praise them because they have learned something good  (and better) is coming their way.  In essence praise is really second best to the use of food or other motivators big in your dog’s repertoire of favorite things in life. And the truth guys is that we humans think that our dogs cherish our praise because frankly we think it is all about us.   While your dog recognizes and gets excited about your praise do keep in mind that he is hoping for the cookie.