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 … Continue reading

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…. High salt items aren’t great either. 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)

 Related Posts

Photo Credits

Spaghetti image

By Manfred&Barbara Aulbach (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0 ) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html )], via Wikimedia Commons

Tortellini image

By cyclonebill (Tortellini med valnøddeolie og sort peber) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0 )], via Wikimedia Commons

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                              


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.

37 thoughts on “Flavors: Ideas for Ultra High Value Treats

  1. As usual nice article Eilleen. Just a reminder to everyone in case you did not click on the dangerous foods link that xylitol is highly poisonous to dogs and can be in baked goods. My own dog collapsed a couple of years back and ended up on ICU and one of the things they suspected was xylitol poisoning.

    1. Jane, thanks for the reminder and I’ll put it in the text of the article too. So sorry about your dog.

  2. I have one dog that adores bakery- cookies, cake, bread, you name it. The other dog is an Ice Cream freak. Open a container of ice cream and he is right there, eyes bright and salivating. Turns out, he loves any kind of cream, sour, whipped, cream cheese. I taught him to put his paws up on the bed using spoonfuls of ice cream (took 3 rep and he got it). Don’t offer frozen yogurt though, he turns his snout up at that. Ice cream is kinda tricky to train with though. I have thought about the spray cans of whipped cream though.

  3. Brava!!! I have never understood the taboo against “people food” for dogs. I have always given my dogs tidbits of whatever we eat (as long as it is something dog-safe) and they both anticipate and enjoy them! They all have their particular favorites, too!!

    1. That’s so cool, ksammie! It’s indeed something that really should need little explaining.

  4. Love this post Eileen. Weekly I commute about 4 hours one way including a 2 hour ferry ride and one of the dogs comes with me. Unavoidably sometimes the dreaded ‘ferry food’ is on the menu. My dogs have tasted such things Kung Pau chicken, spicy tofu, burgers (Vita goes crazy for hamburger buns), and even French fries. Whatever I think is safe for them to try. And you are right – they get a taste, not a meal. It’s a great way to make car rides run and valuable. We also play a lot of car games to pass the time, but for kibble, not Kung Pau chicken. Love your posts. Colleen

    1. Thanks, Colleen! That’s a great story. It’s really funny the things we find out that our dogs love, isn’t it?

  5. Love this, Eileen! Thank you so much for writing this, as ridding dog owners of the pet food industry perpetuated “OMG!!!! DID YOU JUST FEED PEOPLE FOOD TO YOUR DOG???!!” hysteria is sorely needed. Your article and your suggestions for training treats are a great place to start. Here is another suggestion: Let’s just call it all “food”. Not people food versus dog food. Just food. Dogs are capable of consuming, digesting, thriving on, and enjoying a wide variety of food items (here are some fighting words for some…..can you say “omnivore”?…. 🙂 ). The well-documented list of dangerous foods aside, feeding dogs foods that are meant for human consumption is not inherently dangerous, as we have all been brainwashed to believe. Many people can and do feed healthy, well-balanced homemade diets to their dogs, made from human-grade foods. Just as we can feed ourselves in a healthy and balanced way or in an unhealthy and imbalanced manner, so too is this true for feeding our dogs. The distinction should not be between “people food” versus “dog food”, but rather “a healthy and balanced diet made from quality ingredients” versus “an imbalanced, poorly available diet made from poor quality ingredients. The latter may come from either a poorly put together homemade food OR from a commercially produced, poor quality, inexpensive food that people buy because it costs them less than 10 cents a day to feed Muffin. (I know you know this; I am on a bit of a rant here….). Okay done. Thanks for posting this – sharing!!

    1. Linda, thanks for the excellent point about the false dichotomy re so-called people food and dog food. I put a note in the blog about it. Thanks for the rant, too! By the way,”Omnivore, omnivore!” I got jumped on last time I wrote that but stood firm!

  6. On your Cautions and counterconditioning, very well put. And, overall, this is one of the best summaries I’ve seen. Although I’d rather not go the fast food route, as you may not know some of the ingredients. And, as usual, you finish up with some good common sense to apply.

    Now, since you also brought up dogs’ olfactory powers, why do you suppose they stick their noses right next to something stinky, where from six feet away we’re already smelling more than we want? Yes, I know there’s a possible answer to this, but nobody’s ever figured out a way to prove it, I think. Just wondering…

  7. Of course, safety first–in all things. That said, my aunt’s ancient Border Collie (who is not at all a chow hound) would probably do all the laundry for a month for a Taco Bell taco! Go figure.

  8. Ha – like there’s an actual dog food tree – people crack me up when they act all outraged about giving human food to dogs. Of course I give Blueberry “people” food. Because I know I will share with her, I often end up making healthier choices for myself because I don’t want her to eat a lot of junk (it isn’t good for me either). It also creates a bonding experience when I share my food with her. I may have created a monster though – some foods she deems are hers alone and she can get a little pushy about it until I have her calm down and take the morsel nicely.

    I liked some of these ideas. I need to find a high value treat when on the trail with Blueberry because when she has seldom met a pile of horse apples that she doesn’t want to chow down on. I don’t mind her sampling it – but when she gets going and I can see her aim is to eat the entire pile, it makes it challenging to lure her away with the regular treats I have in my pocket.

  9. If I’ve had food that comes in some sort of container, like yoghurt, hummus or some sort of dip (or even the occasional ready meal) I give the empty but unwashed container to my pup as a treat. He absolutely loves it and it keeps him busy for way longer than a frozen kong does. Obviously I keep an eye on him to make sure he doesn’t eat any plastic and no sharp edges appear. This might not be suitable for all dogs.

  10. If you believe the current theories of the origin of dogs, they evolved from wolves excluded from the pack, that hung aroun human camps for the scraps. That is domestic dogs evolved to eat human food!!!!
    And before the advent of “commercial dog food”, that is what all dogs ate!!
    When our family got our first dog (1950s) the vet told us to feed her on exactly the same meals as we had ourselves, with some raw meat added. Mind you in the 50s Australian food was pretty plain — meat and three veggies 😉 With usually a milk pudding to follow, or stewed fruit and custard.

  11. My dogs ae currently sitting all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed beside me now, in the hope of willing ANOTHER Ginger Nut from me 🙂

  12. Hi Eileen,

    First of all – absolutely LOVE your blogg – get so excited when a new one is posted!

    My comment is as follows:

    We are always told that it is important to find high value treats for dogs when training. But my thoughts are that the value has to be what’s vaulable to the dog – not what we think is (or will be valuable)

    So for example, my girl (18 month old jack russell terrier called Daisy) is not really interested in food. I didn’t believe that such dogs existed until she came into my life.

    When it came to rewards for training exercises I spent ages trying to find ‘high value foods’ that would entice her and be a high value treat – pieces of cheese, roast chicken, mince meat (human).. She will sniff them, eat them, but you could tell that none of them really did anything for her.

    And then do you know what I discovered – she is just as happy to work for ordinary dried dog food (I think you call it kibble in the US) as she is for all the fancy ‘high value’ foods that I could think of. In fact, I think she likes the dried food better. For her, ordinary ‘kibble’ is the ‘high value food’. Go figure!

    So when we are training sometimes I give her the fresh mince meat from the fridge that all the other dogs are drooling over! and sometimes I give her the ordinary food because that is what SHE seems to really like and enjoy.

    Anyway, these are just my observations.

    Thanks again for your wonderful blogg.

    Kind regards

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Rebecca! It really is up to the dogs what they like, isn’t it? Hard to believe what they choose sometimes. I have heard of some raw-fed dogs for whom kibble is the ultimate treat. Thanks for sharing about your dog! (love JRTs!)

    1. Hi Sue,

      It looks like you maybe didn’t finish your question, but a very qualified person, Linda Case (The Science Dog), has talked about a home cooked diet for dogs in a previous comment.

  13. All my life we have always given our dogs people food, not gobs of it, but just about anything we eat they get a bite of. And if I have leftovers of homemade food, it goes into the food processor to be used to make homemade doggie treats. I too never understood the taboo against it. I think it helps reduce food sensitivities by exposing them to all different types of food. Rarely do my dogs have upset tummies.

  14. **Sorry in advance if I sound soap boxey, rant like, or come off as something similar.. And this also went on waaay longer then expected and I said etc. a lot, so I’m sorry.**
    Obviously one also has to be aware of food intolerance and/or allergies in some dogs. Technically dairy is something that basically no animal, other then I guess *some* people, eat after they are finished nursing. And grains are not exactly the most “natural” of things for dogs to eat. Yes I know dogs aren’t wolves and have changed and survived off human scraps without dying and live wonderful lives, but that wasn’t the point of what I was saying. 🙂

    The dreaded “people food”. Totally awful for your pets because people obviously starved their dogs before dog food was invented (sarcasm of course). I mean seriously people food= cat/horse/dog/etc. food. The only “people” specific food is food that would be poison if ingested by them like grapes, raisins, sugar-free gum, alcohol (which is technically a drink), macadamia nuts, etc.

    I totally share much of my food with dogs. Anything that isn’t poisonous (or likely to kill them for some other reason) that they aren’t allergic to they can have if I am in the mood to share. Carrots, watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, apples, lettuce, broccoli, banana, almonds, peanuts, peanut butter, almond butter, **chicken**, beef, turkey, strawberries, blueberries, small bits of citrusy stuff, potato, sweet potato, pumpkin, tiny bits of bell pepper, eggs, craisins, cranberries, etc. ***Only in moderation of course.***

    My dogs DO have Food Allergies, so no corn, wheat/grains, dairy, or soy (soy it depends really). If they DO get things with any of those in byproduct form or otherwise it is ONLY really for situations that are terrifying to them like vet visits, groomers/baths which are very few and far between, car rides (Brandi gets car sick sometimes so short CC/DS type drives where she gets incredibly high value food help). Or 4th of July (which they owned last year totally slept through a lot of it), and that type thing. I’ve never had luck anyways with making allergy friendly dog treats, so I have to buy allergy friendly dog food/treats which are totally not cheap, or just use “people food”.

    Just to note, their dry and wet dog food has many different types of meat and such and we switch brands as per the suggestion by W. Jean Dodds, DVM (the one that is super informed in thyroid disease Dr. Dodds) to make sure you have variety if possible to help build up immunity tolerance. If someone wants I’ll find the article, but it is basically so they don’t get a system shock when you give them something novel and/or switch brands or flavors. Since they will already have been exposed to different things. AND I don’t mean to sound high and mighty. If I could I would feed them like Raw or Whole Prey Model, and that sort of thing, even do like homemade food or something so I could control what they eat etc. etc., but nobody in my household will assist me with prep and all that goes with it including paying for it sooo…. We just have to stick with dry dog food and canned food. And since my oversized Mini Dachshund has had 10 teeth that had to be removed, so he couldn’t deal with bones and the other larger dog isn’t a heavy chewer, so some of that just isn’t feasible for my dogs to begin with.

    Obviously I’m not one that is going to like smite you for feeding differently then me or giving grains, dairy, corn, etc. to your dogs because I know lots of dogs don’t really get “effected” by it. Though if it was causing a welfare issue then of course I like most people would be upset.

    1. My dogs are allergic to every interesting thing there is really. I bought them dog treats once that were like mini cakes (before we got the dog that was supposed to have like no grains) and I wound up removing half of it because it had frosting on it that covered way more then expected. Was not cheap either and the whole thing wasn’t even consumed. I think I threw away a lot of it.
      I think the only interesting thing they get is the occasional french fry or applesauce with the main or only ingredient being listed is apples,.

      Allergy friendly food gets more “interesting” and expensive.
      …If you consider something really pricey bought just for them interesting like the Almond Butter I bought that cost like 12 bucks or something for 16 ounces just for CC/DS or enrichment purposes. Specifically it was “Once Again Almond Butter, Creamy”, that was gluten free, vegan, kosher certified, sodium free, USDA organic, OTCO (Oregon Tilth Certified Organic), with no GMOs. And I believe Level 3 Safe Quality Foods Certified. You can get 2.5x that amount of Jif Natural Creamy Peanut Butter (40 oz) for like 5 dollars at Target to give you a comparison. Basically better for you then anything I would typically use for my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I use Jiff Crunchy on my sandwiches which has salt and all that kind of stuff.

      1. *My last and final comment. Once again sorry for my snootyness above*. I’ll keep this quick. I get that people like myself that have pets with food allergies might tend to watch out more closely for stuff in their dog’s food. I found out my pups had food allergy on accident and all previous dogs of mine ate corn wheat, soy, etc. even one that *probably* had food allergies that my family never realized until after he passed. I will say loud and clear I have no grounds to condemn anybody for feeding stuff like pasta and whatnot to their dogs because I did it for many years. *Promise this is the end of my much too long span of comments*.

    2. Sorry Folks. Macadamias are no more poisonous to dogs than they are to humans. It is a silliness that started when some Dobermann ate (if I remember rightly) a pound (or a kilo ?) of shelled macadamias at one sitting, and ended up ‘paralysed (?) in his hind legs for over 2 hours.
      Believe me, if any human ate that amount of macadamia nuts in one sitting they’d wish that the only outcome of that was leg weakness!!!!
      There are plenty of foods that both humans and dogs eat that are ONLY good in moderation.
      After my own experience with an over-indulgence in almonds, there is NO WAY I’d be feeding them to dogs — except of course, like macadamias as a one-off treat 🙂
      I’d ne far more worried about garlic in my dogs’ food — garlic is HIGHLY toxic to dogs — the only reason that it doesn’t make the ‘list’ is because it is generally fed in only small quantities.
      Ditto chocolate, caffeine, chilli, wine, scotch, cabbage, cheese, Christmas cake, meringues, and so on ad infinitum.
      What we can eat with no problem and what we can eat in quantity (as in a meal of) are two entirely different things. As opportunistic omnivores both dogs and humans do best with ANYTHING in moderation.

      1. Actually, I agree. There certainly seems to be a difference between things that are toxic and something that make one sick if one eats a whole boatload of it. If you happen to know of a better list, I’ll take a look at it. Seems like I saw a pretty good one last year. In the meantime, I’ll stay with this one from a credentialed organization, even though there is a downside to throwing such a wide net as you point out.

        1. *I tried sending this comment and my internet crashed so I apologize if this is a repeat message*. The Macadamia Nut thing can be Googled. It is one of those more likely to give you a stomach ache type thing vs. make you drop dead type thing. This isn’t related to the Doberman thing. Like a patient case from vet West Animal Hospitals had multiple reported cases. Candy a 3 year old Chihuahua was one patient poisoned by the nuts.

  15. dogs don’t know the difference between “people” food and “dog” food. it’s all FOOD to them. jarah enjoys spicy foods, anything with MEAT, some fruits (mangoes and bananas), beer!, cheese, etc. etc. she’s not too keen on veggies however. she cleans the pots and dishes before hitting the dishwasher. and she still has her girlish figure. 🙂

    the best-est training treat is a plain hamburger from mcdonald’s or a sandwich that i make – with salami or liverwurst or scrambled egg – and wrapped in parchment paper so that it crinkles and makes enticing noises. i pretend that it’s mine, and if she’s very good, then she can share it by taking bites from it. it’s FUN. and EXCITING. and she works with ENTHUSIASM for it. i’m happy that she’s happy, and the training is so much better for both of our attitudes.

  16. one more thing. tortellini is great to use where you want to toss a treat to a location. it holds together, easy to toss, and easy for the dog to find.

  17. My small Sheltie, who gains weight easily, will work for green beans; but he will about take your
    hand off for a frozen, cooked green pea. You never know what a dog will find rewarding.

    1. That’s so cool! None of my dogs has been a big fan of veggies, but I should probably introduce them more often. They usually go, “Huh, is this really food?” if I give them a carrot or green bean. Oh wait, I have some frozen peas! I’ll have to try.

  18. Veronica likes everything on your list Eileen (and just about everything else that’s not on your list lol)!!

    She is not a fan of raw veggies – won’t touch them; but she does enjoy them warm/cooked. Since she’s on a bit of a diet she has veggies with her dinner every night – broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, green beans, and water chestnuts.

    1. That’s great, Johnna! Oh, water chestnuts are a good idea! I’ll have to try that sometime.

  19. My male Ridgeback so nuts for lemon desserts! So strange. Lemon bars, lemon cupcakes, lemon cookies. Of course he only gets a small bit now and then, but for some reason he responds to it like nothing else.

    1. That’s funny! I have a story about lemon cake. My dog Summer absolutely adores it. It is the one thing she ever counter surfed: She managed to stand up tall enough to eat the edge off a cake that I had left too close to the edge of the counter. So one day I was taking her over to a friend’s house to practice for an obedience competition. My friend was training her border collie. The BC did something extra good, and I gave my friend some of the lemon cake for her. She spit it out!! My friend felt terrible since she had just punished her dog with something she didn’t like after she did a good job. So I guess lemon flavoring can go either way! Summer says, send some of those goodies over here!

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