The Value of Food Reward

Bichon Maltese mix would work better for food reward


The smallest food reward is of value and an incentive to any of my own dogs, but not to the dear little Bichon Maltese mix I went to yesterday. Two-year-old Doug lives with an elderly Bichon, Alfie, and it would be safe to say that food has virtually no value to either of them.

Why? Because it’s freely available 24/7 along with all sorts of treats and extras.

There are reasons why this has come about which have to do with their previous very old dog who was diabetic and needed food left down. In the corner of the room there was a generous bowl of cooked chicken, and a bowl of Bakers Complete.

Before they can do much with Doug’s alarm barking and his reactivity on walks to some other dogs and more recently people as well, they need a currency for not only rewarding him but also desensitising and counter-conditioning him – getting him to associate things which which he’s becoming increasingly reactive with ‘something good’ that Doug really values. That way he will learn to feel good when he sees someone. In Doug’s case the ‘something good’ has to be food.

For this to work they need a dog that’s a bit hungrier. A dog whose meals are not too exciting  will find special stuff a higher currency. At the moment both dogs are like lottery winners being asked to work for a tenner!

Doug is rather a jumpy little dog and his stress levels are conintually topped up with the barking and tension on walks. Just as we know that E-numbers and certain ingredients can encourage hyperactivity and nervousness in our own children, so they can with our dogs. Out goes the Bakers! (If interested in better alternatives for your own dog, here are two websites:  and Best Dog Food Review:

Elderly Bichon

Alfie – an old dog now

Cutting the dogs down to regular meals where any unfinished food is immediately lifted is not going to be easy for these people who have come a long way with their little rescue dog who originally came from Ireland. Lavishing their dogs with tasty food and treats is a way they show their love. It will mean putting an end to sharing their own food both during preparation and while eating. Gravy bones and the like should be ditched in favour of tiny bits of real meat or similar – something nutritious – or from their daily food quota. A gravy bone to a Bichon of about 12lbs in weight must be like an adult human eating something well over ten times that size. A large bread roll perhaps?

My inclination is for them to go cold turkey by cutting out all snacks and start by just offering food every couple of hours, lifting it immediately if the dog either shows no interest or walks away, until he realises that he has to eat when the food is about. One secret is to feed very small portions that can easily be cleared. After all, in a ‘pack’ like my own or animals in the wild, if one dog walks away he will never see that food again!

It may be easier and more comfortable for Doug and Alfie’s owners to do this in easy stages, aiming to be down to two ‘proper’ meals and no unearned snacks in a week or two’s time.

Soon food will gain more value. I couldn’t believe it when Doug turned his nose up at the very tasty bit of freeze-dried lamb I offered him.

When food is a workable currency the real work can start.  Doug can be called away from something he’s barking at and he will listen because he knows he will get a food reward. He will be a lot easier to handle on walks if nice walking is rewarded and the sight of a person or other dog is kept at an acceptable distance (to Ralph) and immediately paired with ……..tasty food.

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Doug. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page).

Billy, Upset and Scared Miniature Schnauzer

Miniature Schnauzer is a very uptight little dogBilly is a Miniature Schnauzer of just eighteen months old. He goes frantic when anyone apart from family and close friends come to the house. He lunges, barks and growls, very upset and scared. He has to be restrained until he calms down.

Billy is never taken for walks now because it is such a nightmare. Virtually anything can cause him to lunge and bark with hackles up – people, other dogs, bicycles, joggers – you name it.

He has twice quite badly bitten family members who tried to put a harness on him. On occasions when they need to take him out like a visit to the vet, he will cower, try to hide and do all he can to avoid the lead. Billy also growls around the feet of anyone who is moving about whom he thinks may be leaving the house.

Imagine how it must be, constantly living in such a highly wound up state.

The family thought they had done all the right things when they chose Billy. He was Kennel Club registered. I am sorry to say I don’t feel this is particularly significant if it’s a family pet we want rather than a dog that physically fits the breed standards for looks rather than temperament. The puppies were upstairs in a bedroom. The family did not meet the mother dog. It’s obvious the puppies had little or no socialisation or encounters with everyday things, people or dogs outside that environment. Inadequate exposure to everyday life before eight weeks of age can contribute to a dog being temperamentally fragile.

One very positive thing is that he seems very much at ease with their 10-month-old crawling granddaughter. It seems she is the only person who can touch him freely and his body language is a lot calmer around her – he even brings her his toys which is lovely. He does not feel threatened by her at all.

With an inadequate start in life and possibly unstable genes where temperament is concerned, Billy’s owners have more work to do than most. Billy needs convincing that he is safe in his own house – protected by his humans.  He needs the right sort of calm, encouraging and consistent leadership. He also needs to know that the family can come and go as they like and he need not worry.

Introducing him again to his harness and preparing him for going out on walks will be an exercise in patience and kind encouragement.

It is so easy to get cross and shout at a dog when he growls or shows aggression. Unfortunately this can only make things worse. The dog isn’t bad, he’s scared.

I can help you, too, with these problems or any other that you may be having with your dog.