Using treats in your training

Published on 26 September 2020 at 15:55

The use of treats.

Without a doubt in most classes you will need to take some treats.  I often hear some dog owners saying they don't want to use treats because they are bribing their dogs to do what they want them to do or are concerned that too many treats will make their pets fat.


It is true that when teaching your dog a new behaviour we do encourage the use of ALOT of treats and I am always pleased that dog owners are watching their dogs weight.  A fat dog is not a healthy dog, it can shorten their life span and bring on unnecessary diseases such as diabetes.  If you are fighting with your dogs weight there are several things you can do to still reward your dog during training sessions.  1. You can use your dogs meal food as rewards instead of using extra treats 2. You can use more healthier options such as chopped up carrots or one of my clients dogs LOVES diced cucumber or 3. Use a tuggy toy or ball instead, if your dog likes these toys.


But I am bribing my dog, right???  Definitely not!  If treats are used correctly they reinforce the behaviours you want your dog to repeat.   I will say that again: the use of treats can reinforce the behaviours you want your dog to repeat.  It is true that to begin with alot of treats are used, particularly in puppy classes or when teaching your dog something new such as a new dog dance move, but as your dog learns the need for so many treats lessens and eventually you will not be needing treats at all or can replace them with toys or by giving them permission to do something they love to do.   For example, most of my dogs LOVE swimming but it is not always safe for them to do so, so I have them walk with me as we are approaching the river, pond or walking down the beach towards the sea whilst I survey the environment.  Is the river running too fast after a heavy rain fall?  Is there green algae growing in the pond? Are there children having a picnic on the beach or playing ball in the line my dogs would have charged down the beach through?  By giving my dogs permission to "go swim" is a much bigger reward for them walking to heel than a treat would have been and keeps them safe. 


What treats are the best?

Most good dog trainers will tell you that treats are anything that your dog likes and are rated from low value to high value.   A low value treat could be the kibble you feed your dog for its dinner and range to high value treats such as cooked chicken, diced cheese, ham or cocktail sausages.   A low value treat is one that you will use at home or in your garden where distractions from other dogs and people are low but the higher distracting the environment you take your dog to, such as dog school or the park/woods, the higher the value the treat needs to be.   Now that is the general rule but only you know your puppy or dog so choosing the right value treat for dog school will be down to you; for instance one of my dogs LOVES all food so even using a low value treat in class can guarantee me his full attention no matter what is going on around him.  If unsure, it might be worth taking a mixture to value treats to class and experimenting which one or ones work well at keeping your dogs attention on you.


What about shop bought treats?

These are ok but I find they are expensive, some are full of fat and/or sugar and they can fill your dog up very quickly, sometimes making it difficult to complete your class because your dog isn't interested in any more food.  So I am not a fan and prefer to use chicken or cheese as my high value options.


Is there anything I should avoid?

Alot of dog owners use the hot dog sausages and similar and yes, dogs to love these.  They are very smelly but also very high in salt which is not good for anyone and especially dogs.  So I would recommend that you carefully read labels and packaging to avoid high levels of salt, sugar and fat in products.  If you do wish to use any of these why not use very small amounts and perhaps mix them up with other, healthier treats to keep your dog guessing.


Can I make and use my own treats?

Definitely you can, especially if your dog suffers from food allergies or intolerances or even digestive problems.  There are plenty of good recipes on youtube for you to try and I am currently testing out a food dehydrator for making my dogs treats.  I will let you know how I get on with that!


What size should I cut the treats into?

In short, as small as you can get away with.  Obviously this will also depend on the size of the dog you are training.  I would use tiny treats if training a tiny dog such as a chihuahua compared to if I were training a large dog such as a German Shepherd Dog, so you will need to be a judge of it.  One tip I can give is if your pet is standing there taking ages to chew the treat and his teeth are fine or he is not a teething puppy, then its usually an indication that the treat is too big.


Help! My dog doesn't like treats, what can I use instead?

I have luckily only ever had one dog that did not like treats or tuggy with a toy or playing ball.  It was a real eye-opener for me and one that did make a lot of my training difficult but not impossible.  You definitely have to think outside of the box with a dog like this so I had to revert to using his meals during training sessions, also known as "earn as you learn", and I had to use a lot of permissive rewards such as teaching him to "walk with me" and his reward was to go play with the other dogs.  The best thing to do is to watch your dog and establish any activities he/she LOVES to do and use those as rewards instead of food or toys.


I seem to be walking around with huge bags of treats on me all of the time, will I always need to do this?

The good answer is no.  As I have said previously, we use a lot of treats in the beginning to reward behaviours we want our dogs to repeat but as they grow up and mature, they learn what is expected of them in given situations and will not require treats to reinforce those behaviours.  This may include waiting to jump out of the car or walking to heel or coming back when called.  So if you are feeling overwhelmed with the number of treats in your life right now just bear with it; it will get better.


What is the best way to use treats?

Good question!  I see sooooo many dog trainers teaching dog owners how to use treats as a lure thinking they are teaching them how to perform an exercise.  Think of it this way.  I recently had to attend a wedding.   The wedding was located in London, an area I was unfamiliar with, so I used my sat nav to drive there.   After the wedding service was over we were invited to the reception, again in an area I was not familiar with.  A friend said I could follow her to the reception as she knew where it was.  If any of you have followed anyone in their car you know only too well that your concentration on the car ahead of you takes over.  You don't want to lose sight of the vehicle because then you will be lost in an area you don't know, so I concentrated very hard on not losing sight of her.   After the reception, I had no idea in which direction home was so again had to use my sat nav to guide me safely home.  What does that have to do with dog training Gina??  Well I was very aware that when I was following my sat nav directions and when I was following my friends vehicle that I was being lured.  I wasn't actually learning the routes I was travelling in the same way that your dog will not be learning what is required of it if the treat is used solely as a lure.


My dog only does it if I have treats on me; he KNOWS when I don't have treats on me - help!!

This is a common complaint from dog owners.  The answer is quite simple and I see it all of the time.  We actually teach our dogs not to work without treats in many ways, as follows:

Run out of treats

How many times have you been training your dog to do their heelwork for example, and realised you have run out of treats halfway through the session.  Most people stop and run to their training bags to fetch more treats before continuing on.  You have just given your dog a clear message that without treats you can stop working.  It would have been better if you have realised you had run out of treats and neatly heeled your dog to your training bag, released your dog, had a play or game and then reloaded yourself with treats.

Where is the treat bag Mom?

Do you wear a treat bag.  this is a visual indication to your dog that you are carrying treats on you.  We are not allowed to wear treat bags or pouches whilst competing with our dogs so it is best not to use them during training.  I have actually seen a dog look for the treat pouch on his Mom's waist before deciding whether of not to do as she had just asked of him - very clever boy :-)


when you use luring methods you hold your body and even your hand in a certain way.  As soon as the treat is not in your hand, your body posture will change very subtly but enough for your dog to know there ain't no treats heading its way!

Chat, chat

Have you ever video'd yourself training your dog with treats and then video'd yourself training your dog without treats?  I have noticed most dog owners talk more to their pets when they have no treats in their hands than when they do, infact most people do not talk to their dogs at all when they have treats to lure their dogs.  This is a big indicator to your pet that there are no goodies heading their way so don't bother to try at all.


In short, treats are a valuable training tool but that is all that they should be, a tool to be utilised to indicate to your dog that you want them to repeat a behaviour.  Your trainer should be able to watch you and your dog and know when it is time to ask your dog to work harder for longer for the same reward.


By the way, I am often asked when dog owners can stop rewarding their dogs with treats.  Often people are in too much of a hurry to discard their dogs rewards.  My dogs have worked high levels in both competition obedience and dog dancing and I have never stopped rewarding them and making interacting with me as fun as it can be.  The way I see it, I don't go to work for free and neither should my dog.


Always make training sessions with you and your dog fun; include tuggy toys, balls and keep sessions short.  Your dog will learn a lot quicker and thats a huge reward in itself for you.


I hope this post has been of use to you.   If you have any further questions on treats please leave a comment below.




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