Dog Training Behaviour and Food

Behaviour (Trick) + Reward (Treat) and Trust

Train the human to have a pup

One of the first ‘to do’ things I was told in bringing Isabella into my life as a wee pup, was that I must do puppy school. The adage was that it was about training the human to have a pup. And I used to believe that adage, trotting it out thinking no further than the humour that it would elicit, including an oft repeated scoff, “Yeah, she [Isabella] trained you well”. The emphasis was placed on the “you”, particularly if the person thought I was either irrationally doting on her or not correcting a perceived ‘bad’ behaviour.

Now, I have tough skin, so I didn’t really get caught up in the judgement, and Isabella did dux puppy school. She was, and still is, keen and very quick in understanding me. I’m the slower learner in coming to understand her, and I’ve failed her lessons more than a few times in the years we have been hanging out together. In fact, I’ve spent more years than I can count at the moment being trained in various classrooms to come to a point where I think I’m holding up my side of our shared discussions… for the most part!

Food as a communication tool

A fundamental part of those discussions has been food, right from puppy school. Some scientists think owners see food treats as important to establishing and maintaining their individual human-dog bond. I think there is something to that theory, in that using food as a communication tool in the positive reinforcement training manner improves clarity immensely between both parties. Through common understanding the bond strengthens.

Training ‘tricks’ becomes more about working out a common language describing behaviour between human and dog. ‘Treats’ become a reward in the building communication paradigm, and together, behaviour and reward build trust.

behaviour plus rewards equals trust

Efficient learning needs ongoing sustenance

Dog trainers often talk about high and low value rewards – as defined by a particular dog. Veterinary herbalists talk about rewards that provide both a short-term satisfaction for the dog and the long-term brain clarity. Efficient learning needs ongoing sustenance, not a quick fix. A high value reward to Isabella is horse manure, both to eat and for dog ‘eau de cologne’… reinforcing for her, yes, but, in a very one-sided conversation!

As with humans, dogs need good nutrition to support physical, cognitive and immune development and maintenance during their lives. Neuroprotective supplementation studies in human and dog populations report varied results. Whereas, optimising the capacity for the body to utilise food is a far more efficacious strategy. The importance of the relationship between the digestive system and brain health and function and the impact on behaviour are new and promising fields of research in both humans and dogs.  The adage of the ‘90s, “You are what you eat” is also appropriate for dogs as well.

Where does a health savvy animal owner start?

I doubt there will be a Canine Master Chef program taking the world by storm and passing on a similar ‘Master Chef Effect’ on dog food preparation and cooking any time soon – sadly for us veterinary herbalists. So where does a health savvy animal owner start? Very simply.

Include Fruit, Vegetables and Healthy Treats

If your dog is maintaining their weight on their current core diet, whether commercial kibble or a complete and balanced home prepared meal, then stick with that as your foundation. You then have two options:

    • Reduce the total quantity/kilojoules of the foundation diet by 10% to account for the use of the kilojoules of healthy treats/training rewards; and/or
    • Reduce the total quantity/kilojoules of the foundation diet by 15% to account for the addition of vegetables and salad. Choose multicoloured vegetables and green leaves, such as chicory and dandelion leaves, spinach and rocket. Fresh or frozen mixed berries have a high antioxidant value and are beneficial for a number of body systems including digestive and nervous systems.

Choose recipes that are not overly complex in their ingredients list and that do not contain toxic ingredients (such as xylitol or garlic) or ingredients that may be difficult for your dog to digest (for example: lentils, soy beans). Keep a watchful eye on the fat content of recipes. Yes, fat can be an energy source, but large amounts can compromise your dog’s digestive efficiency. This includes using 1/3 of a cup or more of peanut butter in a recipe! Essentially, the Ancient Greeks had it right in one of their basic tenets: ‘All things in moderation’.

If you are looking for easy, healthy dog treat recipes that have been taste tested by a canine ‘Chief Taste Tester’ and checked by a veterinary herbalist, look no further than our ‘5 Easy, Healthy Dog Treat Recipes Your Dog Will Love’. Post a photo of what you create on our Facebook page and let us know which recipe is your dog’s favourite!



Chapagain, D., Virányi, Z., Huber, L., Serra, J., Schoesswender, J., Range, F. Effect of age and dietary intervention on discrimination learning in pet dogs. Frontiers in psychology. 2018 Nov 14;9:2217.

Mondo, E., Barone, M., Soverini, M., D’Amico, F., Cocchi, M., Petrulli, C., Mattioli, M., Marliani, G., Candela, M., and Accorsi, P.A., 2020. Gut microbiome structure and adrenocortical activity in dogs with aggressive and phobic behavioral disorders. Heliyon, 6(1), p.e03311.

Velardo, S., Fane, J., Jong, S., Watson, M. (2020) Nutrition and Learning in the Australian Context. In: Midford R., Nutton G., Hyndman B., Silburn S. (eds) Health and Education Interdependence. Springer, Singapore.

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