Do dogs run faster for more treats or better quality treats?

Find out which rewards dogs will run faster for, and why you need to use good treats in dog training.

Do dogs prefer better quality treats or more treats? The implications for dog training from a study of what makes dogs run faster, like this beautiful dog running through a field.
Photo: Dora Zett / Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Modern dog trainers use positive reinforcement to train dogs, and that reinforcement often takes the form of food (see the ultimate dog training tip to find out why).

When you want a dog to come when you call them, you want to use your best training treats as a reward.

But scientists have paid surprisingly little attention to what dogs consider worth working for – until now.

A recent paper by Dr. Stefanie Riemer et al, published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, looks at the relative effectiveness of quality and quantity of reinforcement as measured by how fast dogs run to the bowl they can eat it from.

Pet dogs were trained to run along a walkway that was 20 metres long in order to obtain food. The type of food (quantity or quality) was shown by the containers that were visible to the dog from the start position.

The first study compared one piece of dry food to five pieces of dry food. This was signalled to the dog by the presence of one or five blue bowls containing the food.

But dogs did not run any faster for a greater amount of the dry food.

In the second study, the scientists compared a piece of sausage to a piece of dry food. The type of reinforcement available was shown by the food being in a black or a white bowl.

Dogs ran significantly faster to get the piece of sausage than the piece of dry food.

Interestingly, they still ran fast when the reinforcement was changed to dry food instead of sausage, perhaps because it was a novel item. But the scientists note the pet dogs may have had prior life experience of sometimes receiving no or lower value reinforcement, and this could also explain this result.

The next question on many dog trainers’ minds will be about the effects of one versus multiple pieces of sausage. However this was not tested, so remains a question for future research.

Prior to testing preference by running speed, the scientists did a more standard preference test to see how much time dogs spent looking at, sniffing or attempting to lick the different food items when they were inaccessible behind a wire mesh.  These results, contrary to the runway task, showed a preference for both quality and quantity.

This is a small study as only 19 pet dogs completed all parts of the experiment, so more research is needed. But it is really nice to see researchers paying attention to this kind of question.

The results show that the quality of treats makes a difference to dogs. If you want good results in training, it’s important to know what motivates the dog.

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Riemer, S., Ellis, S. L., Thompson, H., & Burman, O. H. (2018). Reinforcer effectiveness in dogs—The influence of quantity and quality. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 206:87-93. DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2018.05.016

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