Positive reinforcement training is on the rise as the number one training method. And for good reason! Other methods, when not performed properly, have a much greater chance of causing emotional problems, distrust, and even physical damage to your dog.
The most common reward in positive reinforcement training is treats. There has been some criticism about the use of treats as an incentive. Is it bribery? Will your dog perform commands without treats being offered? Just like every training method, there is a right way and a wrong way to get the results you are hoping to see in your dog. Let’s talk about the do’s and don’ts of using treats for training.
The Do’s of Training Your Dog With Treats
Positive reinforcement doesn’t have to be from treats. But, the truth is, most dogs are at least moderately food motivated and will definitely work for food. These tips will help you use treats to enhance your dog’s training and not detract from it by creating a dog who will only sit for a brisket.
1) Do think about the quality of the treats you give your dog. You don’t want your dog to be well trained but at an unhealthy weight from too many treats. Consider the caloric impact of treats on your dog, and pick healthier (but still delicious) options. Single-ingredient options like jerky or freeze-dried beef hearts can be cut into small pieces and used as training treats. If your dog is on a restricted diet already then pieces of dried sweet potato, blueberries, and even slices of carrot can be used.
2) Do offer different rewards for different behaviors.
Consider pieces of their food as low-value rewards. Your dog eats this everyday. And your dog knows you have to feed them eventually, so they aren't as inspired to learn.
Small soft treats are mid-value treats. These are perfect for learning “sit”, “down”, and other simple behaviors
Chunks of cooked chicken, anchovies, shredded cheese, or wet food in a pouch are the crown jewels of treats. These are the high-value treats you want to use for any behavior-modifying training like leash training or reactivity that requires a lot of attention from your dog.
3) Do keep your dog’s training treats separate from your dog’s “Just Because” treats. You want the training treats to be special to encourage your dog to work for them.
4) Do keep training sessions relatively short. Your dog will eventually lose interest, and you don’t want her to overindulge on treats… even healthy ones.
5) Do allow your dog to gently take the treat from your hand. This helps remind your dog to focus on you.
6) Do reward desirable behaviors. Is your dog sitting politely waiting to go outside? Treat! Did your dog refrain from jumping when your best friend came over? Treat!
7) Do keep treats in a pouch that you can carry with you, so you can reward your dog for correct behaviors performed outside of training sessions. This pouch is cute and convenient. It has a pocket you can slide your cell phone in when training outside of the house, and most importantly, it has room for plenty of treats.
8) When you first start training, do reward your dog every time they perform the correct action. This gets them in the habit and teaches them that listening to you is a positive thing.
9) Do continue to give your dog praise and attention for obeying commands as you decrease her treats. This is still positive reinforcement and will encourage your dog to keep at it.
10) Do combine treat training with clicker training. You can use a physical clicker or a clicker word to achieve this. Your dog will start to associate the sound of the 'clicker' with treats. Start by clicking and then handing your dog a treat before beginning to work on commands.
11) Do work with a trainer to learn the right way to train with treats. An experienced trainer can help work with you through all the do’s and don’ts of positive reinforcement training. If you’re in the NYC area, we offer private in person sessions. Or check out our virtual sessions. Hop onto our Services page to learn more about the training options we offer.
The Don’ts of Training Your Dog With Treats
1) Don’t use table scraps or human food (like hot dogs) as a reward. These go firmly into the unhealthy category and can contribute to undesired weight gain in your dog. This can also encourage them to lurk around the table just in case you decide on a dinner time training session.
2) Don’t let your dog see the treat before you ask them to perform the action. This is a surefire way to get your dog to only respond to food.
3) Don’t reward the action until after it is performed. This means no reward for “sit” until their doggie butt hits the floor. When they have performed the command all the way, then reward them with the treat.
4) Don’t drop the treat on the floor. Obviously since you want your dog’s focus to stay on you, you don’t want them to be searching the ground for dropped food.
5) Don’t give the reward if your dog jumps up to snatch the treat. It is very important to never accidentally reward undesirable behavior.
6) Don’t continue to reward them with treats forever. Once they have mastered the skill, start reducing the frequency with which you give out treats.
7) Don’t phase treats out entirely. Do continue to give them out randomly so your dog knows there’s still a chance of a reward. If the treats are gone, the training is gone too.
Treats are a big part of positive reinforcement training. So be sure to follow these do’s and don’ts to make sure you’re getting the most out of your dog’s training. And remember to enjoy yourself along the way! There’s no such thing as a perfect pup. Most dogs are eager to learn… especially when food is involved. Be patient as they learn, and keep up with their rewards to build up the association between action and reward. You’ve got this!