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What does the scent of food cue for your dog?

Updated: Aug 5, 2022

When I take on a new rescue dog or whilst working with clients, I’m always keen to note what behaviours come along with the scent or sight of their rewards.

What behaviour does the scent of food cue for your dog?

Looking back through an old training record the following took my eye:

“Scent of food causes manic sniffing, rather than focus”

This was an observation from a training session with one of my dogs just after she had arrived from the rescue charity.

When I take on a new rescue dog or whilst working with clients, I’m always keen to note what behaviours come along with the scent or sight of their rewards. I’ll be curious about:

What have they already learned? What behaviours have been practised in the past?

What behaviours are safe to take forward into the dog’s future?

What behaviours are unsafe and how can we ethically stop or diminish them?

You don’t need to be working with a rescue do to ask these questions. We can apply this curiosity and analysis to any dog at any stage of their learning.

A dog will be aware of the scent of food in the air and we want this awareness to trigger stillness. Stillness is safe for us, safe for the dog. Stillness is much more than '4 feet on the floor', it is an attitude, we look for attentiveness and engagement.

Stillness is safe, from my experience these are dog behaviours dogs I would label unsafe:

Jumping onto a person, making contact with a person’s body

Tearing clothing, particularly pockets

Biting hands

Persistent Barking


Grabbing and tearing food containers

Fighting with other dogs

Safe behaviours, stillness include:

Stepping back to observe our faces and body language

Paws in contact with the floor

Focused attention

Enquiring for information on how the reward will be delivered

Traditionally dogs were taught to ‘sit’ whenever food was around. This can be an effective safety behaviour, but can cause some dogs stress or interfere with our training plans further down the line.

Sit behaviour is emotionally incompatible to the situation – when dogs are stressed, worried, anxious, fearful they will prefer to stand or lie down. Sitting under these conditions is extremely difficult and risks affecting the relationship between dog and owner.

Sitting is painful for the elderly or arthritic dogs. Having to perform a painful behaviour before being able to eat adds to a dog’s stress.

Sitting is unnatural for some breeds. Is your dog a natural sitter? Will they sit without you? Will they sit by choice? If not, there will be a reason, it could be pain, muscle structure or a preference for another behaviour such as standing or down.

Sitting can be incompatible with some dog sports, grooming, vet checks. Having a dog that learns to stand as a default and then sit when asked will be much more useful going forwards.

There is no need for words, stillness is not something we get to 'command'. If we set up the learning carefully then the dogs will find their own natural stillness.

The reward for stillness is collection of the food or toy. For the beginner dogs this collection is made by you, their person. Getting the timing right is important, hand in the pocket or rolling the toy should not happen before your dog finds stillness. If you are working with a jumpy or bouncy dog deliver the food along the floor or use a underarm bowling motion to throw the toy.

The next delivery is cued by your dog, wait, enjoy watching your dog consume the food or play with the toy, stay connected, be involved. When working with dogs in consults I want to see this gap between eating or play and re-connection. I want to know:

does the dog run back, focused, ready for more

does the dog lie down, chew the toy, wander off

is there another reward (distraction) that is taking priority over the owner

does the dog need time to play or parade with their prize

These responses to food or toy delivery tell me how a dog is feeling and what we should do next, whether we carry on, change the reward or take a break.

The tendency is to fill the gap by calling the dog's name, collecting the next piece of food, asking the dog to bring the toy back and drop it. When we do this we lose the opportunity to assess how our dog is feeling or risk taking away an opportunity for learning.

Reactive dogs in particular benefit from a carefully planned and well structured session. The gap between delivery and stillness is critical when working with these dogs read more

Get to know your dog and work with their natural tendencies.

Cue Seeking

Learning is most effective when the dog is actively engaged in the process. In our world we call this I call ‘cue seeking’. You can read more about teaching cue seeking here

Can I help?

If you feel your dog is struggling with their emotions or confidence, a 1:1 session would give us time to talk about what is happening and put some tailored strategies into place. work-with-me

Not sure if a 1:1 is for you, get in touch to discuss further

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