Updated: Nov 30, 2022
“My dog isn’t allowed to have people food”. I’ve heard this a lot over the years working with families on teaching their dogs basic manners.
Usually it’s in response to my suggestion that they use chicken or cheese as dog treats to reinforce their dog in training. And that recommendation is typically given as I observe the dog at best half-heartedly taking their treat just because it’s there, although with little enthusiasm. Sometimes owners think they are training a dog who is not food motivated, because their dog shows no interest in the treats they brought for class.
There are two main reasons I hear as to why owners to resist giving their dog “people food”, and there are some really great reasons that “people food” should be used as training treats.
Myth #1: Giving your dog “people food” will cause dog to beg at table or anytime a person is eating a snack.
Some people are afraid that giving their dog things like cut up pieces of cheese, chicken or hotdogs will create a monster that thinks any food a human eats is fair game.
The concern is that the dog will develop of habit of being a pest at the dinner table, or the dog will be obnoxious when they’re eating a snack in front of the TV. An even bigger worry is that they may create a problem dog that counter surfs, or snatches food right off the plate as you’re eating.
In a previous post I wrote about how dogs are skilled at discerning patterns and learn to anticipate events. Because of this it’s actually pretty easy for dogs to learn when food is available to them, and when it isn’t. This is true whether the treat is a commercially sold dog treat, their kibble, or so called people food.
If a member of the family tosses food from their plate to the dog, the dog may learn to beg at the kitchen table. I say the word “may” because it depends on what the dog is doing when that food is tossed. If the dog is pawing at a person’s leg, the dog could learn that pawing is effective and repeat that action in hopes of more food. And the dog will learn to do this regardless if the food is a dog treat, or food the person is eating. On the other hand, if the dog is laying on a dog bed in the corner of the kitchen when the food is tossed their way, the dog is more likely to lay on their bed at mealtimes.
So while your dog might develop a fondness for cheese (my dogs certainly have!) the type of food given to the dog doesn’t really matter as much as the context in which that food is delivered. I routinely eat on the couch with one of my dogs nestled up against my leg, and there is no battle over the sandwich sitting on my plate, nor do I have to worry she’ll attempt to grab a bite when I’m not paying attention. Whimsy knows that is not going to work, and so she doesn’t even try. She does know that when she is lying next to me with her head resting on her paws that on occasion I’ll give her a little bit of lunch meat. Resting her head is far more successful in obtaining food than being rude.
Myth #2: People food isn’t healthy for dogs.
It depends on the food!
There is food that humans eat that are toxic to dogs and should never be fed to them. Included on this list is grapes, raisins, chocolate, macadamia nuts, avocado, onions and garlic. A great resource for a comprehensive list of food that should not be given to pets can be found on the ASPCA website.
But I think this myth came about because people were feeding dogs things that aren’t healthy for humans, such as the fat from meat, or left-over gravy on the plate. These types of table scraps are bad for dogs, and too much of that type of food will lead to health problems such as obesity or clogged arteries whether you’re a dog or a human.
But there is a huge amount of different types of "people food" dogs can eat. Just as our own nutritional health depends on the type of food we ingest as well as the amount, so does our dog's health. Cheese in large amounts isn’t healthy for either of us. Cheese in small amounts is just fine.
And I actually love cheese as a training treat because most dogs love it, and since it’s fairly soft I can tear pieces the size of ½ a pea from a stick of string cheese to use as a reinforcer when training. The advantage of using highly savory food is that you can usually get away with using an extremely small amount of it for each training repetition. A stick of string cheese can easily be broken into 50 or more pieces!
Safe, healthy dog treats
On the flip side, just because something is sold as a treat for dogs, doesn’t mean it’s healthy. The next time you go to purchase treats for your dog, take a look at the ingredient list. Many treats marketed for dogs contain a lot of fillers and preservatives, really only junk food for dogs.
Now, I’m not opposed to junk food. I have to say I greatly enjoy cookies, chocolate and the occasional potato chip. And I’m not opposed to giving my dogs occasional treats that are really junk food. But if the goal of avoiding people food is simply to prevent your dog from eating unhealthy and you turn to dog treats, are you really accomplishing your goal? As far as dog training treats, human food can be just as, and in many cases is healthier than many commercially sold dog treats.
Additionally, if you pay attention to the price of the commercially sold dog treats, and compare it to a pound of deli cheese or hotdogs, you’ll see that “people food” is actually less expensive. One popular dog treat is sold at a price that comes out to about $6.75 per pound. I can get generic string cheese at an equivalent of $3.84 per pound, or low sodium Turkey hotdogs at $3.50 per pound. Those are pretty inexpensive dog training treats! The only downside is that the people food doesn’t come out precut up into small pieces.
The best dog training treats are those that your dog loves, and that can be given in small pieces. When I train often the size of the treat that I’m delivering to the dog is ½ the size of a pea. With the really tasty treats you can get away with smaller treats. If you and your dog are satisfied with the types of treats you’re using then it really doesn’t matter if it’s “people” food dogs can eat, or if it's dog treats.
If you're training a dog who is not food motivated, remember that there must be some food motivation or your dog would starve to death. You may find when experimenting with dog training treats, human food might actually be the miracle motivator.
I hope I’ve alleviated your concerns about so called “people food” and you feel more comfortable of letting your dog have a new experience. Check with your vet if your dog has medical issues and you’re concerned about how food may impact their health. Otherwise, Bone Appetit!