training with treats: facts and fallacies



Throw in an adorable four-footed furry wiggle-wagging at my feet and you have a pretty good picture of a typical greeting when I arrive at client’s homes.   We should all be so lucky to get such a warm reception every time we show up for work!  But reward-base training isn’t as simple as having pockets full of turkey jerky.

Over the years I’ve heard a lot of comments and concerns regarding the use of treats for training. Here are a few of the most common issues I’ve encountered:

1. won’t my dog get fat?

Until Rover gets an opposable thumb for opening cupboards and fridges,  you have total control over the quanitiy of food he gets. There is no law that says that meals must be presented in a dish;  100 kibbles in a dish is 99 wasted opportunities to reward something you like. Rover not so keen on kibble? Use a high quality, pure protein such as chicken breast as a reward and you can reduce daily rations for a few days without worrying too much about sacrificing overall nutritional needs. And size does matter; keep rewards small. A general rule of thumb is: size of a grain of rice for small dogs or a cheerio for larger dogs.

2. I don’t want a dog who only works for food

No one does. It all hinges on whether you use treats as rewards or bribes. Bribes (and lures) are sometimes used to elicit behaviours (like holding a treat over Rover’s nose to get him to sit). Rewards come after the desired behaviour (you ask Rover to sit, he does, and then you reach into your pocket for a treat). While lures can be a handy way to show a dog what you want initially, it takes good timing to get the behaviour up to speed and fade out the food lure quickly.  Most trainers have worked on perfecting their skills for years so don’t feel badly if you don’t have expert timing. The proliferation of qualified positive trainers means that help is available with options for every budget.

And don’t forget that it’s called REWARD-based training, not FOOD-based training; there are a lot of other rewards your dog values – walks outdoors, bones, a toss of a squeaky ball, tummy rubs…a savvy trainer will mix these in early so that a dog doesn’t become food dependant.

 3. My dog is not food motivated

My own dog Kali will literally spit out dry cookies right at you as though you had  insulted her. Is she food motivated? Absolutely. Does she consider dry cookies valuable? Clearly not.

Experiment with different types of rewards and find out what your dog finds valuable.  High value rewards should be something Rover will jump through hoops for. They should also be something fairly special that he doesn’t get all the time. Do incorporate non-food rewards such as the ones listed above but know what is going to be most desirable to Rover. If he has toys strewn about the floor all day and you praise him all day long for begin adorable, toys and praise might not be as valuable a currency as you think. Whatever you use, don’t forget the value of selling it. If you act like you’re presenting something Super-Amazing, Rover just might believe it!

4. I tried using treats but they didn’t work.

Incorrectly timed treats can just as easily reward undesirable behaviours. Have a puppy who refuses to walk? Are you showing him a treat to get him going and then giving them to him as soon as he does? You are actually reinforcing the sitting. Or perhaps you have a dog who lunges and barks at other dogs while on leash and you are trying to distract him with food, only to be completely ignored.  An emotionally super-charged dog isn’t likely to respond to treats.

In both of the above examples., better timing would produce different results. It’s easy to blame the tool (the treats) but it’s really the technique that’s the culprit. Would you blame the hammer for hitting your thumb each time you went to strike a nail with it? A modern trainer will have invested a substantial amount of money and time into honing their craft and will be invaluable in guiding you with technique.

5. But punishment works

That’s true, it can (although doesnt always) work. What it does always do is create a relationship based on fear and intimidation. These dogs often look ‘good’ to the casual observer but are simply inhibited in general for fear of correction. I suspect that this approach has more to do with ego or fearing loss of control  than achieving training goals but will leave that up to others to debate.  What I do know is that it’s  entirely possible to have a Really Good Dog who has freedom of choice and doesn’t fear you in any way. It does take a little more effort (and some pretty great rewards) but isn’t your dog worth it?

Whatever training style you choose, know that how your dog feels about working with you will affect how they feel about you. For a great and entertaining illustration of this, watch the following clip and ask yourself: Does your dog enjoy working with you?