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How should I use treats to train my dog?

Pitbull dog training with dog treat

Consistent reward following a desired behaviour will make your dog more likely to repeat it.

© Melounix - Shutterstock

Used effectively, dog training treats can encourage good behaviour and help your dog learn. Here we look at how to use them and how to avoid weight gain.

By Greta Inglis

Published on the 29/06/2021, 17:00

We all know that training any dog, whether puppy or adult, takes time, commitment and repetition. Like many owners, you may have wondered where training treats fit into the process, and how to use them effectively. Are they a bribe or do they have a place in training?

Used the right way, treats can be an excellent tool when it comes to teaching your four-legged friend. They can encourage the right behaviour, strengthening desired responses, and there are a huge range of healthy dog treats available on the market.

Why should I use treats during training?

Asking your dog for behaviours with no reward is much like asking somebody to work for no pay. It can decrease motivation and make the process slower and less enjoyable for both you and your pets.

Food for dogs is a primary reinforcer, meaning they don’t have to learn to like it (as they do with affection, for example), and most dogs have a high food drive, because they are hardwired to obtain it as part of a natural survival instinct.

Forced compliance will negatively affect the relationship you have with your dog, which in turn may even decrease the frequency with which they perform the desired behaviour. Because of this, treats are a great tool in training, and used properly, there’s no need to worry about over-reliance on food rewards.

How should I choose the right treat for my dog?

The UK pet market is bursting with healthy, grain-free and hypoallergenic treats, as well as dog snacks based on low calorie recipes. There are also some great home-cooked options, such as pieces of boiled chicken, which are easy to digest and usually adored as a high value option. Fresh vegetables, such as carrots and broccoli, can prove surprisingly popular, and pumpkin is full of fibre, for a shiny coat.  Even your dog’s normal kibble may work, if mixed in with high value meat for an appetising smell.

Unsweetened peanut butter also works well and can be a good source of vitamins. Make sure it doesn’t contain salt, sugar or artificial sweetener. Xylitol can be very toxic for your pet.

To choose the treat of choice, show your dog the options and see which one they choose. If your dog isn’t particularly motivated by food, you may need to get experimental about the possibilities you offer. A variety of cooked lean meat may spark their interest, offering a good source of protein at the same time. Keep treats small to avoid distraction and switch up the flavours.

If your dog is more toy motivated, this may be an option to consider and varying reinforcers can be very effective. If they love a game of fetch, offer this as well as food treats. Just remember, whatever your dog prefers, high value options will need to be tasty or fun enough to keep them interested around even the most exciting of distractions.

What’s the right way to use training treats?

A line of thinking suggests that dogs should do something just because they were asked to do it. But think of it this way; would you expect your child (or even yourself) to do something without any form of reward or encouragement? Somehow, I doubt it! Just like us, our dogs think and feel, and they will repeat behaviours that lead to fun rewards and avoid doing things that don’t. In a nutshell, it really is that simple.

The important distinction when it comes to using training treats properly, is how and when the treat is given. When you first start training your puppy or dog, you may need to use the training treats as a lure. To do so, keep the treat closed in your hand (the smellier the better!) and encourage your dog to follow your hand into the position you’re training for.

Once your dog understands the positioning you’re asking for, move swiftly to a prompt instead. This will involve a hand movement for your dog to follow, without any food hidden away. Your dog will learn that they can pre-empt a good thing coming (their favourite snack), and the food reward can then be offered as a reinforcer.

What we’re looking to do when training, is reward with the treat after the behaviour has happened, reinforcing the behaviour over time. As per the “four quadrants” of behaviour modification, adding something positive (in this case a food treat), will encourage the behaviour to be repeated.

Click here to learn all about positive reinforcement in dog training.

To use treats effectively, try the following:

  1. Cue the behaviour, using the hand signal or word your dog has learnt once you have moved from luring to prompting.
  2. Mark the behaviour so your dog knows that they have done the right thing and a treat is coming. This can be using a marker word, such as an excited “yes” or a clicker.
  3. Reach for a treat and give this to your dog.
To avoid bribing your dog, remember that the behaviour should result in the treat, not the other way around. The treat should be given while your dog is still in position.

Will I always need to use food rewards? Training your dog to listen without food

The short answer to this question, is no, you won’t always need to use food rewards if you start the right way. It’s completely understandable that most dog owners don’t want to rely on a pocket full of treats to make sure their dog behaves on every walk, and provided the right steps are taken this doesn’t need to be the case.

When you’re confident your dog understands what is being asked of them, you can start to move away from a reliance on food rewards and start incorporating “real life rewards”. By this, we mean anything your dog will enjoy and that benefits them. For example, your dog sits, and they get let out immediately to play in the garden. In this way, and taking care not to lose motivation, you can mix things up and start the process of phasing out food.

Once your dog is offering the desired behaviour consistently and almost automatically - in different contexts and in the presence of distractions – you’ll be ready for the next stage.

Phasing out the use of food treats

Before phasing out the use of food treats, you’ll need to be sure your dog or puppy:

  • Consistently and reliably responds to the cue, even around exciting distractions
  • Is rewarded enough – through real life rewards or food treats - to maintain a high level of motivation

If you’ve met these two criteria, it’s time to look at the different levels of reinforcement available.

When we first start training our dogs and puppies, we operate based on a schedule of continuous reinforcement. This means that every correct response is rewarded. An example would be a sit, followed by a click to mark the correct behaviour, followed by chicken.

 It’s important even at this stage, to offer real-life rewards, such as freedom to explore, play with toys and attention and praise. Integrate this as soon as your dog is showing a 90% reliable response to cues in order to prevent an over-reliance on food.

Using a variety of treats works well to signal to your dog the quality of their response. In what’s known as differential reinforcement, you as the trainer, can select the quality of the reward based on the response given by your dog. If the sit is speedy, slick and smooth, your dog will receive a handful of the most delicious chicken or other high value reward. If it’s a little slow and distracted, they might get a piece of kibble! Just make sure your dog totally understands what is being asked before grading their responses, and reward enough to keep motivation high.

Once you’re ready to phase out the use of treats… the time has come to picture a slot machine!

Known as a variable schedule of reinforcement, this is the ultimate goal trainers and owners aim for when using food rewards. Treats are given randomly, to reward high quality performances of the behaviours being asked, and your dog will offer these in the hope of getting paid out in tasty snacks…

Think of a slot machine; a person learns that pressing the button occasionally results in good things, so they’ll press the button consistently in the hopes of winning. With dog training, the principle really isn’t that different. Your dog is asked for a behaviour and responds, after which they may receive nothing, or they may receive their favourite high value reward. They will offer the behaviour in the hopes of the reward, just as we would hope for a slot machine win.

If you notice your dog’s enthusiasm and energy waning, it may be time to up the reinforcement or include higher value rewards. Practice sessions for trained behaviours with regular reward – known as maintenance training – are a good idea at regular intervals.

How many treats should I feed my dog a day? Avoiding weight gain in training

A common worry among owners is that using dog training treats will make their dog fat. Even the best quality training treats, fed in excess, can lead to unhealthy weight gain and health problems down the line.

How many treats your dog should eat, really depends on their size, age and breed. Talk to your vet about the nutritional needs of your dog, as they will know how best to evaluate diet and breed needs.

Be careful not to create a nutrient/calorie imbalance for your dog, which could lead to them losing interest in their food. The specific number of treats given each day depends very much on the type and size of the treat itself, however as a general rule, training treats shouldn’t make up more than 10% of your dog’s daily calorie intake.

Interested in organic recipes and home-cooking for your dog? Take a look at our recipes here.

Training your dog or puppy should be a fun activity and a bonding opportunity. Dogs are notoriously guided by their stomach, so finding the training treat that motivates and excites them, can open doors to motivation you didn’t know existed. Be sure to work on phasing food treats out when behaviours have been learned, and offering real life rewards through play and affection. With time and patience, you and your dog will be well on the way to success.

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