The Inside Scoop on Using Treats in Dog Training
By Joan Hunter Mayer
Pup parents, do you sometimes feel like you’re “cheating” when you use food treats for training your dog? Or have you been accused of resorting to bribery? Ever since launching The Inquisitive Canine, I’m often asked about this pawsitively meaty topic. And I love when this question arises because there are many myths floating around the doggy-verse about training with treats that I’m eager to clear up. If you’ve ever found yourself facing the dog training dilemma, “To treat or not to treat?” then you’ve come to the right place for the inside scoop!
For starters, think about your training goals.
Training is just teaching dogs what you want them to do, when you want them to do it. I encourage my clients to acknowledge and reward the behaviors they want because behaviors that are rewarded (or reinforced) are repeated. Training from this perspective empowers you to both enhance the bonds you have with your dog and find positive, practical solutions to everyday challenges! And it begins with discovering what motivates your dog.
We can motivate dogs using anything they like and want, including food.
Every time you reinforce your dog’s behavior with something highly motivating, like food, you are building up strong behaviors. Pro Tip: Just be sure to deliver the tasty morsel after the dog performs the behavior, as a reward, rather than beforehand (that’s a bribe). Think of food reinforcement, delivered appropriately, as putting money in the bank. As you increase the account, you’re building your dog’s confidence, increasing the likelihood he’ll repeat desirable (to you) behaviors and best of all, enhancing the bond you share. In other words - yes – you were right all along -dog parents should use food to train their dogs.
That’s why I would highly recommend you carry treats on you, even if it’s something small that fits in a pocket, especially for the “just in case” situations. (A treat pouch is also a convenient option here; you can check local pet supply places, as well as online.) Keep in mind that the more “deposits” you make in the reinforcement bank, the better chance you’ll have later on using praise, petting, and happy talk as the reinforcer, if that’s your ultimate goal.
Praise can be a lovely reinforcer too.
But, it’s best to work up to that level of a deep, rich, relationship. Here’s why. Do you remember your first “real” job? You know, the one where you received a paycheck? You expected to get paid with money, not just a pat on the back and some encouraging words! Keep this in mind when teaching your dog a skill that is challenging for her — or is very important for you. There will be times you’ll want to reach for a super high value reward, such as enticing food morsels. For doggy payday, think small, soft, and stinky!
Check with your dog’s veterinarian (or a veterinary nutritionist) when it comes to choosing the types of foods to use in training. Just like you go to a lawyer for legal advice, and not your plumber, go to someone who has been professionally educated on the topic of pet nutrition when it comes to deciding what to feed, or not feed, your pup. This step is especially important if your pet has food allergies or sensitivities.
Think about how to maximize motivation.
After checking with your vet, experiment with different approved foods. How about some roasted carrots that have been cut up into training size pieces or small pieces of lean meats? Helpful hint: Avoid anything too filling or dry that will cause your dog fill up and get thirsty, which interferes with training. When in doubt, try out different treats and your pupper will tell you what she considers highly motivating. How? Usually by enthusiastically offering a behavior (or behaviors) without being asked, staying engaged in the training, and ignoring the squirrel running by!
Using food for training doesn’t mean your dog should be getting extra calories on top of what he or she is already receiving. Our pets should just be receiving their regular daily caloric intake through enrichment toys and training games and not (only) out of a bowl.
Using food as reinforcement can become more intermittent once your dog becomes proficient and begins offering the behavior you’re training on her own, just because it’s fun! Keep in mind though, that even for those highly skilled, experienced dogs, you’ll still want to reinforce with food on occasion, to help keep up the motivation. Your pawsome pup just completed a 100- yard recall on cue at a crowded park or beach?! Yes – generously reward that!! And also remember to reinforce ‘independent’ activities such as playing on their own or settling quietly on mat without even being asked. Again, behaviors that are rewarded are repeated.
Just because you have treats on you, doesn’t mean you’ll need to use them.
Do you usually take a wallet or credit card with you when you leave the house? Many of us take money with us ‘just in case,’ but there are many times that we return home without having spent a dime. A canine example might be something like working on leash walking with distractions. You want to reinforce your dog for walking nicely around specific distractions, such as bicycles, so you bring treats with you. Lo and behold, you go for your walk and never encounter a cyclist, which means no treats for your dog this time. That’s okay! He still had fun adventuring out, a rewarding experience all its own!
Each dog is unique in his or her likes and dislikes. When you learn what your dog’s preferences are, you can use delivering these favorite things as ways to help motivate your dog to do more of the things you want. Besides food treats, rewards might include: praise, something to do, someone to socialize with, something to touch, someone to engage with, someone or something to play with, something to investigate or any number of other ‘real-life rewards.’
Since dogs need to eat, why not use food to our advantage?
For instance, think ahead and plan to train when you know your dog will be hungry. And, instead of giving him meals “for free” out of a bowl, use part of his daily nutritional requirements as training rewards and in enrichment toys. Of course, this doesn’t mean starve your dog until he can’t see straight! It just means using a portion of his regular meals strategically to encourage and reinforce the behaviors you like. An important note here: Remember, a dog who is physically or emotionally stressed might not feel very hungry. So, be sure to keep training sessions short, upbeat and tons-o-fun!
This reward-based approach is part of a pawsitive cultural shift in modern dog training.
Please be aware that taking an approach such as rewarding certain behaviors with treats, then using aversives (such as choke, prong or shock collars) to “correct” unwanted behaviors, is not advised. It can lead to dogs becoming afraid of training sessions because they associate offering behaviors with fear and pain. And it’s downright confusing! A human analogy would be your significant other coming home with flowers to give you, then slapping you across the face if you did something they didn’t like. A better alternative for those times your dog is doing something you don’t want is to ask yourself what you want your dog to do instead. Ask him to do that. Then reward him for it. Not only will this redirect your dog to something more productive, it will also teach your dog what you want him to do in the future. The message will be much more clear, consistent and kind.
And there you have it - a heaping helping of the who, what, how, when, and where of using food (and other rewards) for training your dog. Interested in learning more about a Pawsitive Approach for Positive Results™? Please contact us. We look forward to hearing from you and your ever-inquisitive furry friend.
The Inquisitive Canine was founded by Santa Barbara canine behavior consultant and certified professional dog trainer Joan Hunter Mayer. Joan and her team are devoted to offering humane, pawsitive, practical solutions that work for the challenges dogs and their humans face in everyday life. Here’s to barking with the dogs, cheering for the humans, and having fun!