Written by Melissa Viera
Using food/treat rewards in dog training is pretty much the norm now-a-days. Most people I meet have used treats to train their dogs at some point even if they have no previous training experience. Treats are just one of many reward options for training dogs. Dogs like to play, sniff, tug, run and get their bellies scratched. All of these can be incorporated into training as rewards, but in this post we are going to focus solely on the use of treats for training dogs.
Although using treats in training seems pretty straightforward, there are some rules and tricks for getting the best results when training with food. Just when you think you have found a highly reinforcing treat reward to use with your dog they get bored. There is always room to play around with how you use treats, and what treats you use, not to mention how you get past using treats at all.
Those tiny, perfectly shaped treats you bought from the pet supply store labeled "training treats" might be fine for training practice, but there are benefits to using a variety of treats from the messy to the unexpected. Surprise your dog with many different types of treats, and notice the difference it makes in training.
When choosing treats, you want to pick something that is healthy, and safe for your dog first and foremost. There are a lot of food options out there, so look for treats that will really wow your dog.
If you are training a behavior that is difficult for your dog, or that is new for them use high-value treats. If you are practicing your day-to-day training use a variety of tasty, but average treats. You can even use a portion of your dog's regular food for training throughout the day to cut back on calories.
Why give your dog dinner for free in the bowl when they could be playing training games, and exercising their minds to earn it?
Frozen peas, carrots, celery, and bits of boiled chicken are just a few options for healthy treats.
For more healthy treat ideas read this article on the Dog Channel website.
For a high value reward use a treat that is especially tasty. Sometimes training with treats can be messy and down right gross, but if you want to get results quickly, high-value rewards are a must.
A few examples of high value rewards are, peanut butter (some peanut butter is dangerous for dogs so make sure it is dog-safe if you use it), sardines, liver, cheese, meatballs (no spices), eggs, and canned dog food. Every dog has a different preference. Find out what kind of treat your dog will go absolutely crazy for and use that for your most challenging areas of training.
The way that you feed your dog treats also plays an important role in training. Just like you want to use many different kinds of treats to keep your dog interested, you will also want to deliver the treats to your dog in different ways.
When your dog does something you really like you can give them a jackpot of treats! Feed them three, four, or five treats quickly one at a time.
If You Want Calmness
If you want your dog to be calm, feed them treats slowly and quietly either directly to their mouth or placed gently on the floor without tossing the treats.
If you Want to Rev Up Your Dog
If you want to wind up your dog feed them treats quickly, toss treats to them, or roll treats on the floor to them.
Feeding for Position
If you are training for a specific postion for example, if you want your dog aligned with your left leg for heel psotion, you can feed for position meaning feed the treat exactly where you want your dog to be.
To keep your sessions exciting here are some other ideas for treat delivery.
- Let your dog dive into your bait bag and take a mouthful.
- When your dog does something really spectacular fall to the floor and drop a bunch of treats.
- Let your dog eat sticky treats out of a Kong, or off of a spoon.
- Put the treat on your shoe.
- Spit the treat to you dog (human-safe food only please!)
- Hide treats around the training area and run your dog to a treat when they earn one.
3. Training with The End Goal in Mind
Treats are fun to train with, and they certainly have a place in training animals, but there will come a time when you want your dog to listen even if you are not going to feed them. That time is usually sooner than later.
If you train with the end goal in mind, phasing out treats will be no problem. Right from the start you will know that eventually you won't be using treats as often as you do in the beginning.
By being random about the way you deliver treats, and mixing in other types of rewards you will be able to start weaning off treats. Sometimes your dog will get a treat reward, other times some praise, and sometimes a toy. You do not have to reward every successful behavior the same way.
When training, your dog should not always see that you have treats on you. Don't make training an obvious routine by putting on your bait bag and picking up a clicker. Ask your dog for behaviors throughout the day. Sometimes they get a delicious treat, sometimes a pat on the chest, and sometimes nothing at all.
If you find yourself training with one hand in your bait bag, or you reach for treats when your dog gets distracted, you know your dog is training you how to give them treats. Don't worry we are all guilty of this at one time or another. Go back, and work on the behaviors that are not reliable enough for you to feel confident asking your dog for without a treat in your hand, and you will soon feel better about it.
Here's what a training session might look like using the above tips.
Cue dog to sit. Dogs sits. Release dog from sit and praise followed by instructing the dog to heel position.
Heel forward five steps and feed dog a small piece of celery from your hand in heel position.
Continue heeling forward.
Make some left and right turns and do some changes in pace. Praise dog, and offer a small training treat occasionally.
Release dog from halt (sitting in heel position), and give a jackpot of bits of meat.
Cue dog to heel. Perform a challenging heeling pattern.
Release dog from heel and run to a nearby table with a preloaded spoon of peanut butter for dog.
Try changing up the types of treats you use, and the way you use them with your dog. Did you notice a difference?
Let us know in the comments below.