When a dog does a behavior and the consequence of that behavior is the addition of something he enjoys, he will do the behavior again. This is known as positive reinforcement. If you’re sitting at the table and your dog crawls up on your lap and you start to feed him, you should expect for him to crawl up on your lap the next time you sit there. If he whines or barks at you and you give him food for it, you’re going to get more whining and barking. The real problem that the majority of people deal with in regards to giving their dog “people food” is that they give it at the wrong time.
Here is how to use it
We need to make sure that our dog is doing an appropriate behavior prior to receiving the piece of food. I’m a big fan of teaching a dog to lie down and stay. If he does it properly, he will earn small pieces of food. If he messes up, he gets nothing. The more he is rewarded in a certain position and on a certain spot, the more he will go to that spot and get into that position. This is called the matching law.
For most dogs, “people food” is extremely high value. This means we can leverage it and get a lot of behavior for a small amount of it. It’s very easy to teach a dog to hold a down/stay for the duration of your meal all for one piece of your food. If you enjoy sharing your meal, then you can reward multiple times throughout your meal.
When you first start working on this you’ll have to reward quite frequently to beat him from getting up. As you practice more and more, you can add in longer durations in between rewards. During the “down time” he will patiently wait on his spot.
Reactivity or Aggression
When dealing with reactivity or aggression issues we are always using “people food.” One of my go-to foods is the cheese that comes in a can. We also use a lot of meats and other cheeses.
If we’re dealing with aggression then we are focusing on changing how the dog feels by showing him that the scary thing predicts a lot of awesome stuff. The more awesome the stuff is the easier it is to change the association.
A dog that is “reactive” needs something very high value to compete with whatever it is in the environment that is motivating the reactivity. If we try to bring “low value” treats into the picture we won’t get any of the behaviors we’re asking for.
Don’t overuse it
If you have a dog that is fearful or reactive then you want to save the “people food” for those moments. If he is always getting the highest value foods on a daily basis, the value decreases and it’s unlikely they will work for behavior modification.
Not every food is safe
And remember, not every food that we consume is safe for dogs. Make sure you do your research so you're not unintentionally giving your dog something that could be harmful.