Food rewards are some of the most useful training rewards in a trainer's toolbox. They are highly motivating, allow for many repetitions, and it's easy to adjust reward value through type and volume. There are several factors that you should consider when selecting the right type of food to use for training, and making the correct choice can mean that you can train behaviors quicker and increase the quality of performance for existing behaviors.
With young puppies, I almost exclusively use their kibble for all food rewards. There are several reasons for this, one of which is simply increasing bonding time with your puppy. When all of his meals come from you and activities with you, it helps build a very strong bond with your new addition, rather than a relationship with a food bowl. Using kibble for training also means that you can be in complete control of nutrition and calories, which can be difficult when you are also using high calorie treats during training sessions. Kibble rewards are also excellent for building and maintaining food drive. On the overall scale of food value, kibble is not a high value reward at all. When your puppy learns from a young age that kibble is a fun reward, you have the whole remainder of the scale to use for jackpots and higher level rewards. Many people get caught in the trap of only using high level treats like hot dogs and commercial training treats, and their puppy may be disinterested in any lower level food rewards.
Now that's not to say that higher level food rewards don't have a place in the toolbox. I use them frequently with dogs that are learning to work with me for the first time, dogs that need a bit more drive for the behavior we are working on, or with dogs that are working through things in new and stimulating environments. One of the easiest types of food to use are food rolls, like those made by Red Barn and Natural Balance. These are complete foods, so you have the same benefit that kibble brings where you do not need to worry about your dog getting extra calories or having an unbalanced diet. One of the downsides to this type of food is that it can get expensive, and you will have to take the time to cut it up. Different brands vary in their ease of use. Natural Balance crumbles quite a bit, Red Barn tends to hold together better, and Happy Howie's, although the most expensive option, holds together very well.
Other commercial types of treats can be useful as well, though this is often the most expensive route to go. Some of my preferred brands are Bil Jac, Zukes, and Pet Botanics, because they are easy for dogs to chew and are already the correct size for a training treat. There are so many different products on the market, and you may find a brand that works perfectly for you and your dog. Things to look for are small size, easy to chew, and of course making sure that your dog finds the treats motivating. There are options for those who want to use all-natural treats, options for dogs with food allergies, and options for dogs who cannot eat too many extra calories. Commercial treats can also be a good route to go if you have your dog on a raw diet. Obviously feeding a raw or other type of homemade diet will not allow you to use your dog's kibble ration as a training reward. There are, however, several different kinds of freeze dried raw foods that are available.
Various kinds of "people food" can also work as training rewards. A popular choice with lots of trainers are hot dogs, because they are cheap, tasty, and easy to cut into appropriately sized pieces. This is also a controversial treat to use, because they are fatty and full of sodium. If you decide to use hot dogs as a training reward, try looking into low sodium options, or lower fat chicken and turkey hot dogs. String cheese is another popular option, and the same low fat selection applies. Baked chicken is a choice that is very healthy for your dog in addition to being tasty, although it does tend to crumble. Another more unique option is one that I picked up from some AKC obedience trainers: cheese puffs. You can buy them in large containers, and they work really well for exercises where your dog is chasing a thrown treat. They show up easily on most floors, and roll when thrown. Another interesting aspect to this treat is that they are mostly air, so you can do multiple repetitions without your dog getting full. Not the healthiest of treats, but it has some unique qualities.
Even if you find a type of reward that works for your dog in training, you may have to mix it up for time to time. My dog Wild is getting several different kinds of food rewards right now. We are working on building his motivation for tracking, and I want him to get high value food rewards when he is tracking. Because he has done most of his past training for his kibble, he finds Red Barn to be highly motivating. I would ideally have something even more valuable than that, but he is eating so much of the food that I want it to be a balanced diet. Simultaneously I am working on building duration places with another dog. I do not need or want a dog to be in a high drive state for that kind of behavior, so he gets rewarded with his kibble. When I am working on snappy position changes with the same dog, he sometimes gets hot dog jackpots to keep his motivation level higher.
Sam is the owner and head trainer at Kentucky Dog Training LLC. She set up this blog to share success stories, training tips, the progression of dogs in our training programs, and other thoughts on dogs and training.