In Training, Pay Your Dog with the Food or Foods They Love, Science Says

Should you use your dog's favourite food or a variety of treats as rewards in training? Scientists find it varies, depending on the dog, but in the long term variety is better.

Dogs have individual preferences for rewards, but in the long term variety helps in dog training. Photo shows puppy running.
Photo: Dora Zett/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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When training dogs using positive reinforcement, it is important to use good dog training treats in order to motivate the dog. But is it better to use the same food reward every time, or do dogs prefer variety?

A study by Annika Bremhorst (University of Bern) et al, published in Scientific Reports, tested 16 pet dogs to find out if they prefer variety when it comes to reinforcement.

Previous studies have shown that dogs prefer food as a reward compared to petting or praise (see do dogs prefer petting or praise and the importance of food in dog training for summaries of some of these studies). Scientists have also shown that dogs run faster to receive a better quality food reward (sausage compared to kibble).

In this study, dogs were first of all offered three different types of high value food to see whether they preferred sausage, cheese (Gouda), or a liver treat. First the dogs were given one of each to eat. Then the dogs were shown all three treats in inaccessible containers with wire mesh so they could see and smell the food types but not reach them. Whichever one they spent most time looking at was considered their preferred reward.

Sausage was the most commonly preferred (44% of the dogs), followed by cheese (31%) and liver treats (25%).

The dogs were then pre-trained to touch a target with a paw, and to run from their handler to the target. For the pre-training, dogs received positive reinforcement in the form of semi-moist dog food.

The main study then used several training blocks to test whether they preferred to continually receive their preferred reward all the time or a variety of all three high value rewards.

The apparatus involved a wall with an experimenter hidden behind. In front of the wall, and separated from each other by a screen, were two targets, each with a food-dispensing tube and a bucket to receive the food. Dogs were released by their handler and had the chance to run to either target.

Dogs have their own preferences, but variety of dog training treats is best. Photo shows portrait of happy dog
Photo: Bad Monkey Photography

Depending on the target, when they touched it they either received their preferred reward every time, or one of the three rewards (variety).

The results showed that 6 dogs preferred to continuously receive their preferred reward, 6 dogs preferred variety, and 4 dogs had no preference. This is interesting because it was expected that all of the dogs would prefer variety.

However, over time, it seemed that preference for variety was increasing. This means that over longer training periods or multiple sessions, variety is probably better.

Sometimes in experimental studies, dogs have a preference to go to one side rather than the other (e.g. to always go to the right). This cannot be ruled out in the current study, but does not seem to be the case given the increasing selection of variety over time.

Interestingly, the number of calories in the treats was not the deciding factor for dogs, given that most of them preferred the piece of sausage, which had the least calories.

The scientists write,
“The findings of the present study are of importance for training of both pet and working dogs. Dogs are sensitive to reward quality and will adjust their operant behaviour accordingly”
They also write,
“although some individuals may prefer a single, favourite food reward in the short term, introducing variation in food reward types may maintain dogs’ motivation in operant tasks over a longer time period.”
These results suggest that those of us who use human food in dog training are doing the right thing, as human foods were the most commonly preferred rewards. Of course it is up to you to find out what the dog you are training likes best.

And similarly, it is up to you to find out whether your dog prefers to always receive the same fantastic reward, or to get a variety of great rewards over time. Using the best rewards will lead to better results in dog training, so you should pay your dog with treats they love.

Since people are increasingly using reward-based training methods, studies like this one are important to find out the best ways to motivate dogs. 

If you liked this post, check out my award-winning book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "the must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

What type of food reward does your dog prefer?

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, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Bremhorst, A., Bütler, S., Würbel, H., & Riemer, S. (2018). Incentive motivation in pet dogs–preference for constant vs varied food rewards. Scientific Reports, 8(1), 9756.

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