Years ago, when I first started training dogs, food treats were absolutely forbidden in obedience classes. Many of us used treats at home while working with our dog on certain exercises, but we were not allowed to use them at class. I admit, some of us had treats in our pockets though, a little bit of cheating in class to keep our dog’s attention!
The tide changed, and in the 1980s, “positive reinforcement” became the buzzword, and the motivator of choice became food treats. This had both good and bad consequences. Good in that dogs who love treats became very easy to motivate, but bad in that many dogs ended up working only for cookies. In this article, I’d like to give you some hints on how to use training treats effectively, as well as when to choose not to give your dog a food reward. These tips apply to training companion dogs and many competition dogs, but please note that food is used differently to “bait” a conformation show dog in the ring and may also be used differently for training dogs for other disciplines.
When choosing food for companion dog training or a behavioral modification program, the majority of the time I recommend pieces of food no bigger than a Cherrio™. If your dog is tiny, like a Yorkie or Maltese, use a piece of food half the size of a Cherrio ™. In addition to size, the food should also be quite easy to swallow with very little chewing. Why? Because a larger and harder treat, for instance a hard dog biscuit, causes dogs to chomp into the treat and pieces fall to the floor. Dogs then begin “vacuuming” up crumbs, instead of paying attention to us. The goal is to be able to deliver the treat while still keeping the dog’s attention focused on us. Should you use meat as a treat and if so, what type of meat? Many trainers recommend small pieces of cut-up hot dogs as training treats. Although dogs love them, most hot dogs contain high levels of sodium and preservatives like nitrates. These ingredients are the reason that some people get headaches, even migraines, after eating hot dogs. Dogs cannot tell us when they have a headache, and sometimes behavioral problems are actually due to physical causes, so why take the risk of a reaction?
Meat is however the ultimate “high value treat” for most dogs. It is not expensive to simply boil and cut up chicken into tiny pieces, or buy an inexpensive cut of pot roast type beef and do the same. You can freeze an amount that will last you a week or two in Ziploc™ bags, and take them out as you need them. Always boil the meat, as opposed to baking or frying, and be sure to cut off any fat to reduce the chance of digestive upset. The majority of dogs are able to digest boiled meat much easier than commercial dog treats, which can be full of preservatives and hidden forms of sugar.
When should you give the treat? This is the most important concept to remember! Always give a verbal marker (a quick “yes!“ or “good!“) before you give the food treat. The second your dog performs correctly, give your quick praise, then deliver the treat. If you are using a clicker for training, the click would be your marker, but for companion dog training, it is still
very valuable to condition in a positive response to your voice. Whatever comes before the food is going to become a valuable motivator that will eventually give the dog the same feeling that the food treat has invoked.
Last but not least, never forget that the timing of your delivery (of the verbal marker followed quickly by the treat) is crucial. Don’t reinforce behavior you do not want! If you want your dog to know that sit means sit until I tell you otherwise (as opposed to sit meaning put your bottom on the floor then pop quickly back up) then reinforce with your praise and treats only while the dog’s bottom is on the floor! Otherwise, in your dog’s mind, the exercise is simply translated as “bottom on floor, quick pop up and be rewarded”, so the pop-up will continue, making it very difficult to teach the dog impulse control.
When should you refrain from using treats in training? Whenever it is not necessary to obtain the behavior. When I can teach a dog a behavior through patient and kind repetition, or through my body language, as opposed to luring him into position with a treat, I will do so. Also, once I have conditioned praise as a motivator for the dog (for some dogs, this is a natural motivator and does not have to be conditioned) then I begin using variable reinforcement for the treats, eventually weaning them out almost entirely. Otherwise, dogs become so treat-oriented that they will not do anything for us unless we are a constant cookie dispenser! T hat is not the type relationship I wish to have with my dogs. Yes, I like to give them treats. Yes, I often teach a new behavior by luring them into position with a treat if this will help them understand quickly, but why should I use a treat to teach the dog to back up out of my way, when I can simply walk into the dog, while saying “back” and the dog complies? This helps him understand that I control the territory, and that he must move out of my way. Older children are often pretty wise at teaching a dog how to back up or move without treats, yet knowing when they need to use a treat to lure a dog into a position such as a down. Before allowing a child to give a dog treats, just be sure your dog has been taught to take treats gently, so that fingers are never accidentally nipped by the eager eater.
So before you pull out that cookie, think about it…with this particular dog, and with this particular behavior, do you need a treat to help the dog understand? If yes, use it. If not, skip it and rely on your body language, consistent repetition, praise and your relationship with the dog to get the behavior you desire.
©2002-2010, Melanie Schlaginhaufen, all rights reserved. May not be reproduced in any fashion without permission from the author.