The Opposite of Force

Clara's pool provides enrichment she can choose when she wants

Clara playing by herself in her pool

I think I’ve figured something out. 

I continue to see the concept of choice bandied about the positive reinforcement-based training world. It can be a code word for a setup that includes negative reinforcement. “I’m going to do something physically unfamiliar or unpleasant to you and you have the choice of staying here and getting a piece of food or leaving and being relieved from whatever it is I’m doing.” I’ve suggested that this is not a laudable kind of choice; as trainers we can use our skills and take our time so that the dog doesn’t want to leave in the first place. 

It can also refer to human-centric preference tests, many of which are subject to extreme bias.

But here’s my new realization. I think we have grabbed hard onto the concept of choice because it seems like the opposite of force.

  • Instead of pushing the dog’s butt down into a sit, I don’t. The dog now has a choice.
  • Instead of restraining the dog for nail trims, I don’t. The dog now has a choice.
  • Instead of pulling the dog away from the fire hydrant by his leash and collar, I let him sniff, or I give a cue for another behavior that I will strongly reinforce. He has a choice.

But there is a semantic mismatch here. Force and choice are not opposites.

Force has to do with our actions. In force-based training a human might push, pull, loom over, shock, scare, or drag a dog to get or stop behavior. Those are all concrete, describable actions. The human performs them.

Choice has to do with an internal state of the dog. We conject about it. We pat ourselves on the back for “giving him a choice.” But “making a choice” is not an observable behavior; it’s an internal event. We see the behavior that follows it.   

Not only that, but whatever internal state that might exist when we explicitly “give the dog a choice” may also exist when we are not doing this. It doesn’t depend on us. We don’t have to be the center of the “choice universe” for dogs.

Shock collar trainers often say the dog has a choice, and they are correct. The dog, once it understands the system, can “choose” to endure the pain or can “choose” to perform the behavior that turns the painful stimulus off. 

I’m not equating positive reinforcement based training with shock training. I’m pointing out that the presence or absence of choice is not the difference between them. 

The Opposite of Force

So if force refers to a human behavior, what is the opposite? We can’t say “not using force.” That’s a dead man behavior. What human behavior/s are the opposite of using force on an animal?

Force on our part limits and constrains the animal’s choices, besides often causing pain or fear. Therefore:

I’m going to suggest that in a practical way, the opposite of using force is to proactively remove physical barriers (when safe) and provide lots of simultaneous opportunities for positive reinforcement and enrichment. 

Blanche Axton leaves exercise items out because her dogs like to climb on them. In other words, for enrichment!

This is an undramatic thing for us to do. It means noticing what our dogs like and providing opportunities for them to do it. It means being flexible enough to work around them if a dog suddenly discovers something fun that was not part of our plan. It means not demanding a dog’s attention when she is happily doing something that doesn’t involve us.

Jo the pug loved her cat buddy and opportunities to play were welcome

That last one—not demanding the dog’s attention—can be hard. My rat terrier, Cricket, slept in the bed snuggled up to me her whole life, even after she had advanced dementia. During this time, young Clara slept in a crate right next to my bed. Summer slept in a crate on the bed. (She had been aggressive to Cricket in the past.) Zani was free to be where she wanted, which was usually somewhere on the bed. 

After Cricket died, I did away with the crate on the bed and put no constraints on where Summer and Zani slept. I decided not to let Clara out of her crate at night right away. She had always slept there with no apparent frustration. I wanted to give the other dogs a chance to develop new routines. They had seniority. I assumed they would sleep with me.

Summer chooses to sleep in an open crate next to my bed. She can make this choice because I have provided multiple places to sleep. 

But they didn’t. Neither Summer nor Zani slept on the bed with me for several months after Cricket died. I missed Cricket and was lonely. A couple of nights I closed the bedroom door with the dogs inside just to have some company, but I felt bad. That was against my beliefs. 

So you could say that after Cricket died I “gave the dogs choices.” But let’s operationalize that. What I actually did was to remove barriers (keep the baby gate and other doors open, remove and open up Summer’s crate) and make sure there were lots of comfortable sleeping places all over the house. 

Finally, I let Clara out. She got on the bed with me and never looked back. The other dogs eventually came back and have their own quirky sleeping habits.

Two other examples:

  1. I leave my back door or doggie door open when I’m home and the weather allows. The dogs can come and go. I have to put some limits on this because of safety and social concerns (neighbors) but I do it when I can. You can say I “give them a choice.” But what I am doing is leaving a door open and thus providing simultaneous access to multiple forms of reinforcement and enrichment.  
  2. Clara prefers to drink fresh, running water, an apparent carryover from her feral days.  When we have been out and I pour some water from a plastic bottle into a bowl, she likes to drink out of the stream as I pour. If I stop because there is an inch of water already in the bowl, she’ll lap a couple of times, then bump my hand with the bottle until I pour again. This is a pushy behavior but no harm done. I always arrange it so Clara can drink out of the bottle if she wants. I didn’t have to teach her this. I just had to pay attention.

The Fine Line

All this choice talk causes me to worry on behalf of people who are new to training and maybe even new to having a dog as a family member.  Giving a dog too much freedom too soon is such an easy mistake and we may be encouraging it in the wrong places. My dogs would love to be underfoot when I cook in the kitchen and wait for me to drop a crumb, but it’s not safe. Hence I have trained them to stay on mats. They would love to run around snatching items from visitors, but I have taught them alternatives. They would love to chew up my furniture and hey—peeing feels good wherever you do it. But I have taught them to chew their own stuff and to pee outside.

Training dogs to live with us involves limiting choices, especially at the beginning. There is no way around that. I think the way to mitigate it is to give them as many opportunities for reinforcement and enrichment we can within the confines we set. There are more limits with puppies or dogs new to our household; we can relax them as the dogs mature, habituate, and learn through training how to thrive in a human household. 

Even though it limited her choices in the short term, one of the best things I ever did for my household and for Clara was to keep her crated at night as a youngster. I was consistent. Letting her be unconfined at night before she was house trained and before she had learned to leave my stuff alone would have created many problems. The tippy situation with the older dogs would have made it dangerous. And letting her out before she was ready would have broken both our hearts (permit me that small anthropomorphism) when I was later forced to crate her again for another long period.

Providing Enrichment

So you can train your dog “yes and no” (although it’s much trickier than most methods allow for). You can set up husbandry methods planned around the dog leaving periodically, and call that “giving the dog choices.” Or you could, much less dramatically, observe what your dog likes throughout his life and give him opportunities to do it. You could provide multiple concurrent sources of enrichment. You could notice when he expresses a preference in his own way and honor it when you can. You could practice self-control on your own desires to influence your dog to pay attention to you or stay with you when it is not necessary.

Force is something humans do to dogs. Setting up an enriching life and training with positive reinforcement are the opposites of that. Those are the behaviors we humans can do so our dogs can make choices. 

Text and photo of Clara copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

Photos with pugs and the pugcat copyright 2017 Blanche Axton. Thank you, Blanche!




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Are You SURE Your Dog Prefers That Food Toy?

It just occurred to me that it is super easy to make assumptions about how much our dogs prefer a particular food toy, or even whether they really enjoy them that much. 

Don’t yell at me. To be clear: I use food toys for my dogs every single day. I think they can be enriching and that they are ethical things to use. 

But food toys present us with a funny little problem. The laws of behavior get in the way of something we might like to know. How can we tell which toys our dogs like best? Or whether they like them at all?  

Resource guard much, Clara?

Classical Associations

Most of this post is about operant behavior, but here’s a quick run across the classical domain. Any event or object that predicts food can prompt an animal’s responses to food if the pairing is consistent. My dogs salivate when I open the silverware drawer at a certain time in our morning routine. It’s because I then grab a spoon before administering pills embedded in peanut butter. The dogs weren’t born with that response. The silverware drawer meant nothing until it came to predict peanut butter. Here’s another example: one of my dogs salivates when another dog barks. (Really!) And we frequently see the signs of the positive conditioned emotional responses that go along with the body’s preparation for of food. For instance, most hungry dogs will perform excited behaviors in anticipation of their food bowl or toy. 

Clara thinks that empty food toy still has potential 

Filled food toys predict food perfectly.  If a dog is healthy, has a normal appetite, and can get food out of a particular toy, she’ll likely be delighted to see it. But that excitement is not a pure love for the toy itself. We can’t easily separate the toy from the food the dog gets out of it. 

Preference Tests and the Matching Law

So if it’s hard to tell what part of a dog’s excitement about a food toy is about the food itself, then it’s also hard to tell which toy a dog might prefer over another.  

Can we use a preference test to determine a favorite food toy? I’ve written recently about them and how easily we can mess things up when we try to determine our dogs’ preferences. There are several types of tests, and some are more appropriate for testing dogs’ preferences than just putting an item in each hand and waiting to see what happens.

The most basic preference test is a “free operant observation” test. In this type of test, the animal or person has access to several potential reinforcers over a period of time.  An observer tracks the amount of time the participant interacts with each item. This method removes a lot of the problems that can give us false results.

But food toys have food in them. If a hungry dog is put in a room with three different food toys he is familiar with and that contain the same kind of food, he will make choices roughly according to the matching law. He will most likely gravitate toward the toy he can get the food out of the fastest first. As that one empties and the rate gets slower, he will likely switch to another toy. (Most toys yield food faster when they are full.) It’s unlikely that a dog will be making any kind of choice other than “what will get me the most calories the fastest right now” if the toys are equally familiar.

This would also apply if one toy held much higher value food than another. Usually more preferred food has more calories. (Not always, but usually.) So the matching law would still be in effect if the dog took five minutes to ingest a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter before taking one minute to eat a similar mass of low-calorie kibble that had less than one fifth of the calories.  

I suspect the treats in Zip’s pickle toy are pretty high value!

Un-Fun Toys

Two toys came out a couple of years ago that were marketed heavily. They looked great. Both were stationary and were challenging because of their shapes. They didn’t require much creativity or skill, just persistence. (I’m purposely not naming them here. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them and I don’t want to single them out as “bad” in some way.)

My teacher bought one of them, and after a while said that she thought it wasn’t fun for the dogs. All it did was slow down their eating. I bought it from her to see if my dogs liked it. I came to the same conclusion after a while. I donated it to a breed-specific rescue for a breed prone to bloat. The manager said they got plenty of dogs who just needed to slow their eating down a bit, and this was perfect. 

But honestly, my dogs never acted disappointed or thwarted by these toys. They wagged their tails and did the suppertime happy dance just like they did with every other food toy I gave them. It was just my educated guess that the toys weren’t as fun because there was no movement. There was no particular behavior required beyond doing a lot of persistent licking to get the kibble out. That made the meal last longer, but there was no challenge, no skills, no problem solving involved.

I guessed that my dogs would prefer toys that involve movement, since they prefer that in general. But it was only a guess.

Ethics sidebar: If my dogs’ normal habit is to eat as fast as possible, is it ethical to use food toys to slow them down?  My glib answer is that anything that relieves boredom, that is stimulating, that brings some interest to their lives in our house and yard, is a good thing. That’s the major idea behind food toys.  I’m looking at the whole picture when I make the decision to use one. But would the dogs agree? Hmmm. 


This is the place where someone will bring up contrafreeloading. Contrafreeloading is an observed phenomenon where an animal will choose to work for food rather than eat food that is available without work. Does this prove that food toys are good in themselves? Not necessarily. There is some evidence of contrafreeloading in several species, but it’s not as common a phenomenon as many think. There are both learning theory and ethological hypotheses for the function of the behavior. You can check out the abstracts of the review articles below if you want to know more. The important thing to keep in mind is that it appears to happen a lot less often than eating the easily accessible food. In other words, animals that do contrafreeload don’t always do it or even mostly do it. So I don’t think it’s fair to use contrafreeloading to support a claim that food toys are always and automatically better for our dogs.

(You can do a test. Split your dog’s meal between an open bowl and a food toy and put them next to each other in your dog’s eating area. Release the dog. What does she eat first? Try it both when she is extra hungry and when she is rather full. Is her behavior different?)

Two Winners and a Runner-Up

Possibly the best foot toy ever

When wondering about how to tell whether my dogs prefer a certain food toy, two examples come to mind. One is that over the course of my life with my dogs, I have taught them to search for food. I started small, using boxes as in a canine nosework class. I built the searching behavior and the dogs got so skilled that I could hide food anywhere in my house and each one could find it (even if I had the same food. Then we expanded the search to the back yard and developed their skills outdoors. Nowadays I have to make very difficult hides—elevated or placed under something—unless I want them to run straight to it. They are all skilled. What they search for is a folded up piece of a cardboard paper towel roll with about 7-10 pieces of kibble in it. 

Their body language—all three of them—is that of thrill and delight. They love sniffing out their food. They can’t wait for their turns. But the reward is relatively low value. Their excitement seems out of proportion to the food alone. Sometimes one of my dogs will leave a piece of kibble or two in a regular food toy. “Meh, not worth it.” Never in the yard. They will search every piece, then cruise the yard again after the other dogs’ turns just to make sure. I can safely say that there is fun in this activity above and beyond actual eating.

And like most R+ trainers, I can say the same about training. My dogs love the combination of interacting with me, learning things, and getting food. Again, their demeanors tell me that there is fun in this activity beyond the food. Although they get excited for meals, they get thrilled at training sessions. 

Another candidate for a fun food toy

And here’s the runner-up. I have a tentative candidate for another favored food toy. It’s one that is comparatively easy, but involves that searching behavior that seems to be so fun. It’s the Snuffle Mat. Here’s a link to the Snuffle Mat I purchased, from Your Mannerly Mutt, a store owned by a positive reinforcement based trainer. You can also make your own. 

I rotate our one Snuffle Mat among my three dogs as an alternative food toy. And I’ve noticed that when I prepare to put it down for another dog, Summer will leave her own area where she usually waits for her food to come and watch the mat. She may jostle the other dog (atypical for her) to get closer. It’s clearly attractive. She normally ignores the other dogs’ food toys. This appears to be a favorite. But playing devil’s advocate to my own argument (a.k.a. falsifying), I could propose that it’s because it’s a big visual target. Or that it appears more “open” with the food more accessible like a big bowl. Either of those could be the reason. But it also could be true that the foraging behavior required makes it a more fun toy.

I think I need to buy at least one more. I’m sure my dogs think that more tests are in order.

Anybody else have observations about whether your dogs might prefer one food toy over another? Can you rule out matching law factors? Do you have a way to quantify or at least describe the behavioral difference?

Resources on Contra-Freeloading

Inglis, I. R., Forkman, B., & Lazarus, J. (1997). Free food or earned food? A review and fuzzy model of contrafreeloading. Animal Behaviour, 53(6), 1171-1191.

Osborne, S. R. (1977). The free food (contrafreeloading) phenomenon: A review and analysis. Learning & Behavior, 5(3), 221-235.

Photo of Portuguese Water Dog Zip copyright 2017 Marge Rogers.

Text and all other photos copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson.

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The Joy of Training With Food

Thank you to Debbie Jacobs, who pointed out that many training videos do not include the moment the trainer feeds her dog, and that we need to see that. 

Training your dog with food is not only effective. It’s also fun. Do it for a while and your dog may start preferring his training sessions to his meals, even if it’s the same food. You will learn things too, and will enjoy seeing your dog get enthusiastic and attentive.

People who are new to it can profit from seeing what training with food looks like, so I’ve put together a video. I am most definitely an amateur, but I don’t mind showing my imperfect training. I’m not trying to model the perfect use of food delivery–I don’t have that level of skill. But I can give people an idea of what a high rate of reinforcement looks like and let them see what a good time the dogs are having. Hopefully, it will help people who are newer to the game than I am.

It seems to be human nature to be a little cheap with the food at first, so this is another reason for the video. I’m showing high rates of reinforcement in the clips. Most people are surprised at first by how much food we use. But if you are going to do it, do it right. Using a high rate of reinforcement makes it fun, helps keep your dog’s interest, and builds a strong behavior.

Some people talk like using food and building a good relationship are mutually exclusive. But the opposite is true. Have you ever heard a new mom say, “I don’t want to nurse my baby because I don’t want her to associate me with food and comfort. I want her to love me for me!”? Has your grandmother ever said, “I was going to make you some cookies but I didn’t want that to get in the way of our relationship”? Being the magical source of all sorts of good food for your dogs doesn’t hurt your relationship at all. Likewise, your dog’s being a source of comfort when the human world is harsh for you doesn’t cheapen your love for her.

I know, I know. The analogies with the new mom and grandmother are flawed. Those are classical associations and in the case of our dogs, we are talking about training with food. Making food contingent on behavior. Please give me a pass on that for now; I’ll address it in a future post. Besides, the net effect of using lots of food gets you the classical association anyway.

Why Train at All?

Poster: "Don't let anyone tell you that working on good mechanical skills is making yoerself (or your dog) into a robot. Working up good mechanical skills is an act of love.When I first started training my dog (Summer was the first) it was because of behavior problems. Then I found out we both enjoyed it. So we kept on. My next purpose for training was to compete. We competed and titled in obedience, rally obedience, and our favorite, agility.

Zani needed minimal training to fit into my household. She is the proverbial “easy” dog. But she turned out to be a natural agility dog so we did a lot of that. Clara did need training to fit into the household, and even more help to be comfortable in the world.

Today, with my dogs at ages 11, 8, and 5, we don’t have any big problems getting along at home. I’ve trained them alternative behaviors to things that just don’t work well in human environments. Things like peeing on any available absorbent surface, chewing anything attractive, and hurling themselves at me. In turn, they’ve taught me their preferences and the way they like to do things.

What’s the main reason we train now? Because it enriches my dogs’ lives and it’s fun for all of us. Training with food and working together to problem-solve help create a great bond, and it’s a game the dogs can never lose. We all learn so much! I train things like tricks, agility behaviors, and safety behaviors. For instance, right now I am working on everyone’s “down at a distance” using a hand signal. Oh, and handling! Any money I can put in that particular bank means less stressful vet visits for my dear girls.

What Training with Food Looks Like

I compiled a short video that comprises six clips where I am training with food. A lot of food. Each behavior gets at least one treat. Sometimes I use a second behavior (such as a hand target) as a release and I treat for that too. In some cases when I am capturing a behavior for the first time, or working a little duration, I am giving multiple, “rapid-fired” treats. So in that case, one behavior gets many treats!

You will see me both tossing treats to “re-set” the dog for the next behavior and treating in position. Almost all the videos are “headless trainer” vids, but that’s OK with me. I want you to be able to see the dog performing behaviors and eating.

By the way, I am using kibble in most of the clips, but if you are new to this, you should definitely use something more exciting. Be generous. My dogs will work happily for kibble now because over years they have come to love the games. And they don’t always get kibble. They also get things like chicken breast, roast, moist dog food roll, canned cat food, dehydrated raw food, and other exciting stuff.

A small black and tan dog is delicately accepting a treat from a woman's hand while training with food.

I appreciate Zani’s gentleness when I hand her a treat!

The behaviors in the movie are, in order:

  • Zani crossing her paws in response to a hand signal cue. On the latter reps, I am giving her multiple treats while she stays in position.
  • Clara working on one of her rehabilitation exercises for hind end strength. In the video, I am feeding in position. I’m giving lots of treats because she is doing duration and this is a hard behavior. After this session, I started treating after the behavior, since it’s a bit awkward for her to eat when she is stretched up vertically.
  • Summer doing a nose-to-hand target. This was after I had cleaned up the results of sloppy training on my part. My rate of reinforcement in these clips was 27 reps per minute. (Not all repetitions are shown.) That’s 27 cues, 27 behaviors, and 27 food reinforcers per minute. Pretty good for me. I’m not usually that fast, and of course, there are tons of variables. (One thing speeding things up is that Summer rarely chews small pieces of food!) If you’d like to see an exercise for rate of reinforcement and speedy treat delivery, check out this video from Yvette Van Veen. 
  • An old video of Zani drilling what I call “Level One Breakfast” from Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. In this case, we were practicing sits, downs, and hand targets.
  • Summer filing down her front toenails on a scratch board. If you want to learn about this and other ways to make nail trimming a pleasant experience for your dog, visit the Facebook group Nail Maintenance for Dogs.
  • Clara’s very first try at “two on, two off” agility behavior on an elevated board. (Note: many people teach this with a nose target on the ground but I don’t include that. I don’t plan to do agility with her and was just experimenting. ) When she gets in the correct position, I don’t mark, but just start feeding, feeding, and feeding in position.

Link to my video for email subscribers.

The one thing missing from the above video is a magnitude reinforcer: a large extended reinforcement period. That’s a great consequence for something the dog put real effort into. I do them mainly after agility runs, or when my dogs do something unexpectedly impressive in real life. That happened just the other day when I cued Zani to drop a stinky dead snake and come to me…and she did! Sadly, there was no camera running while I thanked her and showered her with all the goodies I had.

Luckily, my friend Marge Rogers has a great video of Rounder, her Rhodesian Ridgeback, practicing his Reliable Recall (from Leslie Nelson’s great DVD). Note in particular what is happening at 0:54 – 1:02. After she successfully calls him away from a yummy plate of food, he gets a constant stream of fabulous food and praise. If you don’t think 8 seconds is a long time for that–try it sometime!

Link to Marge’s video for email subscribers.

Other Reinforcers

Of course, there are other fabulous reinforcers. I use tugging, playing ball, sniffing, personal play, find-it games, and playing in water with my dogs. All these are great relationship builders too. I talk to and praise my dogs all the time, and have successfully used praise to shape behaviors with them. But you know what? Praise would be completely empty if we didn’t have a bond already. It only gains value after we are connected.

So Don’t Forget the Food!

Training with food builds your bond with your dog. It’s not mechanistic or objectifying. Working up good mechanical skills is an act of love, and so is using a great reinforcer. These will help you communicate clearly with your dog. And the observation skills you will gain as you improve as a trainer will help you learn what your dog is saying to you!

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

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  • Developing good training mechanics is an act of love.

Tricks for Frozen Dog Treats

I am all about efficiency. You could also say I’m lazy. Also, my freezer is usually stuffed full.

So rather than freeze whole filled food toys for three dogs, I use several gadgets that let me freeze things separately. Then I can put frozen dog treats (of all sorts–just look!) into food toys for a quick treat for the dogs that they can enjoy for a few minutes.

Custom Freezer Trays

Kong puts out a product called “Easy Freeze Dog Treats Kit” that includes a plastic freezer tray. It makes Kong-stuffer shaped treats. Their kit includes a treat mix you can use, but once you have a tray, the genie is out of the bottle. They don’t market this product heavily. I think it’s because it costs only a few dollars, but it frees you from buying their premade products (crackers and paste) for a quick filler.

Kong easy freeze tray with peanut butter yogurt filling

Kong Easy Freeze Tray with peanut butter and yogurt mixture

The above picture is the “X-Large” tray. The frozen pieces fit large Kongs as well.

Black Kong with frozen treats

Frozen treats from Kong mold

Stay tuned for an explanation of those funky looking treats.

There is a smaller size Kong tray that is rather hard to get ahold of. Here’s what you can use instead.

Silicone Molds

You don’t even have to buy molds from Kong. There are now food-grade silicone molds that are used for soapmaking, candy making, custom ices cubes, and yeah, dog treats! Just search on “silicone molds” and you’ll get there.

You can find practically every shape and size you ever dreamed of. Here’s one that has a nice shape for small food toys.

Silicone mold in shape of dog bones for making frozen dog treats

Here it is with vanilla yogurt filling.

Silicone mold in shape of dog bones with vanilla yogurt filling

And here are the cute little frozen treats.

Frozen vanilla yogurt dog treats for Kongs

These go nicely in small and puppy Kongs.

Ice Cube Trays

Of course you can use standard plastic ice cube trays too. You’ll have to experiment to see how much filling you should put in the cavities so you can fit the treats into your own toys.

What Kinds of Fillings?

Here’s the cool part. You can freeze just about anything in them that’s safe for dogs to eat.

Leftovers. How about some pasta? (Hold the onions and garlic.) Keep the tops of the treats entirely flat, or they will be difficult to insert into the toys. You’d be surprised how hard they are to insert if they are just a little bit lumpy. You can do a two-part freeze with things like this. I don’t have a photo, but after the ones in the photo below froze, I poured some broth over them and put them back in the freezer. It made them nice and smooth. I did the same for the treats pictured with the black Kong above. I don’t remember what was in the bottom half, but after they were frozen, I put more liquid on top, along with a chunk of a cookie.

Kong easy freeze tray with pasta filling

Frozen pasta treats

And here’s the best thing. Now you have something easy to do with all those leftover dog treat crumbs.

Plate with crumbs

Treat crumbs…

These are big “crumbs” from some specially made dog cookies that I tried, rather unsuccessfully, to break into training treats. I did use some for treats, but I got tired of dealing with the non-uniform shapes. So I soaked the rest in water in a bowl in the refrigerator.

Bowl with crumbs

Add water and soak…

Edit: I removed a reference and photo of adding another leftover food. Barbara Korry DVM cautioned me in the comments that it could be dangerously salty for some small dogs. Bad idea on my part. Thanks Dr. Korry.

Here’s how they looked after freezing.

Easy freeze frozen Kong tray with cookie crumb treats

Frozen crumb treats

Putting the Treats in the Kong (and Giving them to Dogs)

In case you want to see it done, here is a very short movie that includes inserting the frozen treats into the Kong.

These do not take nearly as long to eat as an entire, frozen-solid Kong, but for dogs who lick them (rather than crunching the whole Kong in their mouths), they still take 5-10 minutes. You can also put a few loose treats of another sort in the Kong first, so they are blocked at first by the frozen treat.

Doubling Up

A reader asked whether one could put two of the frozen treats in at once. I didn’t think so, but I tried it and it worked! You need to put them in one at a time, with the small end pointing down to the small end of the Kong. Get the first one all the way in. Then insert the second one such that the flat faces will face each other. I was able to do this with two full-sized treats. Again, this probably wouldn’t work if they were at all bumpy.

Kong with two fillings

Kong with two frozen fillings

Do you freeze stuff for your dogs? Just this week I also made a batch from some leftover scalloped potatoes, and another from the copious crumbs from the bottom of a package of dehydrated raw dog treats.

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Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015

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  • Great shortcut for frozen dog treats.

Flavors: Ideas for Ultra High Value Treats


A plate of spaghetti with a red colored meat sauce and a pile of grated cheese on top

Spaghetti Bolognese as a training treat? Is that even possible? See below!

OK, I’m going to break the ultimate taboo here and talk about giving so-called “people food” to dogs. 1)Nutritionist Linda Case points out aptly in the comments that even the term “people food” is inaccurate and comprises a completely false dichotomy. I won’t use it anymore, even to make a point.

Most of us who do positive reinforcement training and counterconditioning are already accustomed to giving our dogs some pretty special, high value stuff at times. Tuna, ham, Gorgonzola cheese; most anything fragrant and full of calories has been tried at one time or another.

But these types of foods have something in common, and that is that most consist of one basic flavor.

A friend who doesn’t actually train her dogs, but gives them small amounts of interesting food out of love and as enrichment, caused me to notice how much dogs appear to enjoy complex odors and flavors.

My friend read a quote similar to this one about dogs’ olfactory powers: “We smell ‘vegetable soup,’ but a dog smells each individual ingredient.” 2)In the training community, this quote may have originated in a tracking book in 2010. It was picked up and used by the Canine Nosework folks as well. Author and scientist Alexandra Horowitz writes:

Dogs have more genes committed to coding olfactory cells, more cells, and more kinds of cells, able to detect more kinds of smells….their sense of smell may be millions of times more sensitive than ours.–Alexandra Horowitz, “Inside of a Dog,” 2010

My friend subsequently started making sure that her dogs regularly got–along with the smells–some tastes of safe, home cooked foods that were complex and seasoned. Just because she figured they would like it. She was right. They love it. She calls it “flavors” and all her dogs line up for their special tastes of interesting food, and look forward to a bite in their dinner bowls.  And note: her dogs can all proficiently suck up spaghetti à la “Lady and the Tramp.”

Smell vs. Taste

Even though they have those amazing noses, dogs have a lot fewer taste buds than we do. They probably can’t discriminate tastes nearly as well. But that’s no reason to limit their food to “simple” tastes like we often do, even when looking for high value treats. The smell of complex foods is likely rewarding in itself, and I find it hard to believe, after seeing what complex foods dogs often seem to like, that the smell doesn’t enrich the eating experience.

I remember one day at an agility practice when one of the people brought spice cookies for the humans. The dogs, with my Summer leading the way, went nuts over the odor of those cookies and when offered some bites gobbled them down like ambrosia. Summer has had cookies (intended for humans) before. Mostly simple things like vanilla wafers and shortbread.  The smells and tastes of butter, sugar, and vanilla are not unknown to her. But add in the clove and nutmeg and cinnamon in spice cookies and it was clearly a whole different experience.


OK, before my suggestions, here are the cautions. Use common sense about foods that are toxic to dogs. Here is a list:  Foods That Are Hazardous to Dogs.

Also, be careful about foods with high fat content because of the risk of pancreatitis, plus of course all those calories. Highly processed foods full of sugar or white flour (see the fast food entries below) are probably best kept to small quantities as well. They can’t be any better for dogs than they are for us…. And on the other hand beware of artificially sweetened foods, which may have Xylitol, extremely toxic to dogs (thanks to reader Jane for this reminder).

Finally, with regard to using these kinds of treats for counterconditioning: I generally avoid making suggestions about things that “work for some dogs.” It is tempting when working with fearful dogs to try every trendy thing that comes along, without buckling down to do the actual conditioning and training which has been shown to help. So I don’t usually say, “It can’t hurt to try.” It can hurt to spend time on things that aren’t likely to work. But I don’t believe widening the search for foods that our dogs love falls into that bucket. It’s part of the basics of training and conditioning to find something the dog goes crazy for.


So OK, that plate of spaghetti looks great, and it’s not too onion-y, but how could one use something like that as a training treat?

Remember food tubes? If spaghetti with meat sauce turned my dog on like nothing else, I would be putting it in a blender and dishing it out with a food tube. But there are quite a few “people foods” that lend themselves more easily to training.

A pile of plain tortellini on a green plate.

Plain tortellini are popular with dogs and fairly  practical

Things You Can Cut Into Pieces

  • Cheese or meat tortellini or ravioli, boiled plain
  • Commercial or homemade meatballs
  • Meatloaf
  • Grilled cheese sandwich
  • Whole wheat waffle with cranberries (NOT raisins)
  • Fast food hamburger or cheeseburger with bun (hold the onion, mustard, and pickle). The buns are very soft–just rip off small bites with both meat and bread
  • Fast food breakfast sandwich
  • Pizza
  • Pumpkin or spice bread  (no chocolate chips)

Things to Blend and Put in a Food Tube 

Some of these may take some finesse with the food processor, especially those with  potatoes. They can get gluey. Most of these require the addition of some liquid.

  • Spaghetti with meat sauce
  • Barbecue meat
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Omelettes
  • Hash brown casserole
  • Lasagne
  • Many soups, stews, and casseroles

A Little More Common Sense

OK, before the healthy food posse comes after me, please note that I am not recommending that anyone change their dog’s diet to include these foods in quantity. Just a bite now and then for enrichment, for a very special training treat, or for counterconditioning. And I wanted to give the people who do lots of counterconditioning some ideas for things they may not have used yet.

Also, there are plenty of non-junky home cooked foods. The sky is the limit!

My Summer will do anything for any sort of bread or baked goods. What interesting things does your dog like?

A brown dog is exiting a set of weave poles, with her eyes on a piece of white bread that her handler is throwing ahead

Summer weaving for plain white bread (with the headless agility handler)

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Photo Credits

Spaghetti image

By Manfred&Barbara Aulbach (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( ) or GFDL ( )], via Wikimedia Commons

Tortellini image

By cyclonebill (Tortellini med valnøddeolie og sort peber) [CC BY-SA 2.0 ( )], via Wikimedia Commons

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                     

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Notes   [ + ]

1.Nutritionist Linda Case points out aptly in the comments that even the term “people food” is inaccurate and comprises a completely false dichotomy. I won’t use it anymore, even to make a point.
2.In the training community, this quote may have originated in a tracking book in 2010. It was picked up and used by the Canine Nosework folks as well.