Why do food rewards win, but not for separation anxiety?

Dec 4, 2017 | Animal Behavior, Learning Theory, Training

By Julie Naismith

Dog with Kong. Chocolate labrador

Rewards-based training is the best. Dogs love it because it’s fun and it doesn’t involve fear or pain. And best of all, it works. In fact, research shows that it works better than any other method.  Hands down, the best tool for training is food. But, despite the fabulousness of food, it’s best left in the cupboard when we’re training a dog with separation anxiety.

It’s not that we couldn’t use food for separation anxiety training, it’s just that we don’t need to. When it comes to separation anxiety, the aim of a good trainer should be to keep things simple for the owner. The more things we ask you to do, the less successful you are likely to be.

But, before I get into why food is less critical to separation anxiety training, I’d first like to talk a little bit about why it DOES work for training your dog in other ways.

Animals work for pay, just like we do

I’m passionate about rewards-based training and particularly the use of food rewards. And your dog loves training with food too. If your dog weren’t motivated by food, it would most likely be dead. Animals that don’t eat don’t survive. And if they don’t survive they don’t get to pass on genes. As a result, being motivated by food is fundamental.

For some reason, we homo sapiens – a species hugely motivated by rewards – have decided dogs shouldn’t do things for rewards but should instead do things just to please us.

As Kelly Duggan, writing for Your Pitbull and You, points out,  “The bottom line is this: no properly functioning living thing does stuff for free. I love my job. I love my boss. I respect my boss. But if I went to work tomorrow, and my boss said: ‘You’ve been doing such a great job, I’m going to go ahead and stop paying you,’ I’d stop going to work. Not because I don’t like to please my boss, but because I have to make a living in this world. And so do dogs, they just have a different form of currency.”

We expect dogs to work for free all the time. As an example, we often think we can stop paying dogs for recall. That somehow once the dog gets it, he should just do it. And if he doesn’t, he’s willful.

Here’s the thing though, recall is behaviourally expensive, meaning it takes effort and energy, both of which are finite. As a living organism, your dog needs to know that expending energy on what you’ve just asked him to do is worth it. If your dog seems to lack motivation in training, it’s not him being stubborn; there’s a good chance your economics aren’t adding up for him.

I asked Zazie Todd, of Companion Animal Psychology and leading blogger on all things related to the science of dog training, why she loves to train with food:

“Food: it’s a great way to motivate your dog. For most dog training situations, it works really well.You ask the dog to do something and then reward with a piece of food. Food training is fast and efficient so you can get lots of repetitions done very quickly. It’s also a nice way to add a bit of variety to your dog’s diet because we use a higher value food for training than they get in their bowl.”

Zazie’s go-to is pea-sized pieces of chicken or high-value treats like dried fish or tripe.


Three dogs looking at trainer
Nothing beats training with food


Food makes us happy. It makes dogs happy too.

Food is so central to survival it comes preloaded with a feel-good factor. In training, we call that a primary reinforcer – good stuff that’s just naturally reinforcing. Dogs are born finding food, play, attention and smells reinforcing.

Dogs also get excited about things that predict the good stuff, not just the good stuff itself. For example, many dogs love the sound of a crinkling bag of treats. Others go loopy when you get the leash out. Is it the leash? Do dogs just think leashes are the coolest thing? Not at all. They love what the leash predicts (leash means a walk, which equals fun!)

This is classical conditioning in effect, and it’s something that’s extremely useful for working with dogs. We can use classical conditioning to get dogs to like things they are either neutral about, or they dislike.

By pairing the intrinsically reinforcing things (usually food) with something the dog dislikes, we can start to change how the dog feels. If your dog gets hot dogs every time he goes to the vets, he will soon start to think “vets means hot dogs,” and hence that going to the vet is the best thing ever. We are changing the association the dog has of vets from “scary” to “yummy.” And a trip to the vet becomes almost as exciting as a bag crinkle. The name for this process is counter-conditioning.

Scary/unpleasant stuff paired with food is a powerful combo, so much so that plenty of trainers use the one-two punch on a daily, if not hourly, basis. I asked pro trainer and Academy for Dog Trainers coach and mentor Kristi Benson about her approach to counter-conditioning, and why she’s never seen out without her bait bag full of chicken.

“I live with a large crew of active and athletic sled dogs, many of whom came from racing kennels and have found adjusting to pet dog life to be a gloriously fun—but sometimes, frightening—challenge.

Most of my dogs are a bit scared of people they haven’t met before, and some are scared of other random stuff, like loud noises. I like having food around so that when customers to our farm drop by and meet our dogs, I can give them (the dogs, that is) a special treat afterwards. New people have, in this way, come to predict treats.”

Whenever my dogs startle or spook, I give them treats afterwards. This keeps up the predictive relationship between scary things and treats”.

Food as a distraction

Food makes for an excellent management tool, especially with bored or busy dogs. Chewing, dissecting, foraging and hunting are all tremendous doggie pastimes. This makes food a powerful tool with which to manage behaviours we don’t want.

If your pup is chewing on furniture, a dog chew is a handy diversion. If your dog finds his way into food cupboards hunting for food, give him a fiendishly difficult puzzle filled with yummy goodies to keep him busy.

Dog trainers call this “management.” We’re not necessarily training out a behaviour but we’re using other tools to stop the dog doing the behaviour we don’t like. Management is great because it takes a lot less effort than training. That’s why trainers will often recommend management to you. We know you have a limited number of hours in your day, so if there’s a management solution, we’ll offer that.

Mixing up the food types you use ups the interest and excitement. I love the range of variety boxes pet owners can get these days. Not only is the variety neat for dogs, but it’s exciting for the owner to open up the surprise goodie box each month too. One of my dogs’ favourites is Binky and Oliver’s gourmet box.

But if food is so marvelous, why don’t we use it for separation anxiety training?

First, separation anxiety training is not about obedience training. Sure, we could try to address separation anxiety by training a reliable down-stay that stops the dog scratching at the door, but even competitive obedience dogs won’t hold a stay the whole time you’re at work. Plus, that’s not going to help us tackle the dog’s anxiety.

Second, a good number of dogs won’t eat while their owner is absent, and, interestingly, this includes both separation anxiety dogs and non-anxious dogs.

The anxious dogs that do eat while you’re out tend to chomp, devour, or practically inhale their food. They aren’t exactly showing relaxed home alone behaviour.

Third, for the dogs who will eat when you’re out, food serves merely to distract them from the fact you’re gone, and it’s scary. Once the food finishes, the panic sets in. And a frozen Kong will only last so long.

However, I don’t drop food entirely from the equation for my clients. Food is ideal for use in puzzles to keep busy minds occupied, and this type of enrichment is an important part the overall treatment program for a separation anxiety dog. I just ask the food toys go away come training time.

So, for most dog training applications, bust out those chicken bites and dried fish. But, let’s keep the separation anxiety training itself simple and focus on what we works best: getting the dog used to being alone using departures that gradually increase in length. Nothing fancy or complicated. That’s the surest way we’ll get the results and bring you and your dog peace of mind.

Find out more about The Separation Anxiety Solution.


About the Author

Julie Naismith is CEO and Founder of SubThreshold™ and a self-confessed separation anxiety geek. When her dog, Percy, developed separation anxiety she became a woman on a mission – determined to cut through the swathes of incorrect advice to find how to fix it. Having successfully resolved his separation anxiety, with little support and lots of judgment, she founded SubThreshold Training™ with the vision of pioneering treatment for separation anxiety.

Prior to SubThreshold, she apprenticed with one of the world’s leading force-free, evidence-based trainers, Jean Donaldson. She graduated with honors from Donaldson’s Academy for Dog Trainers (CTC) and is a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT) having studied with leading expert Malena DeMartini’s separation anxiety program. Naismith works solely with separation anxiety cases, making her a true specialist in the field. She is also a member of PPG’s Shelter and Rescue Division.