Using treats when training your dog is an effective, positive way to motivate them, and it shows that you have great things to offer when they listen and work for you. Consider it a contract with your dog: if you do this behavior for me, I will give you a yummy treat! All training has to start somewhere, and most dogs don’t start working for a pat on the head.
The key to training with treats is to understand that not all treats are created equal. This is a fact you should most definitely use to your advantage when training your dog! The higher the treat value (read: deliciousness), the more your dog will want to work for it. For example, a piece of cheese has a much higher value than a dry biscuit, and as such can capture your dog’s attention quicker and hold it for longer.
Treats with higher value normally include new, rich or high-flavor treats, or human food including items like chicken, liver or cheese. As a trainer, I always go for high quality wholesome treats that offer different types of proteins and natural flavors. I use a lot of rabbit, salmon, and peanut butter treats with my dogs. By mixing these new and interesting proteins into my routine, it’s easier for me to get a dog’s attention. I know I would be more likely to perform a task if you offered me a cupcake versus broccoli!
Here are seven easy tips to make sure your treat is worth the trick:
- The most important factor in choosing the right high value treats is whether your dog loves them enough to work hard for them. There is a simple way to find out what your dog prefers: offer him multiple treats and see which one he takes first. (Now, if you have a really food motivated dog you might have to do two at a time, one in each hand, so they don’t turn into a Hoover vacuum!)
- The juice has to be worth the squeeze. This simply means that the reward has to be worth the work. The harder you want your dog to work, the higher value the reward should be. For behaviors that are already second nature, you can stick with your regular training treat, but once you start teaching new behaviors, you should up the ante with something delicious like a Zuke’s Lil’ Link.
- Make sure to increase treat value with increased distraction as well. If you normally work on leash skills in your neighborhood and you want to try going to a park, be sure to use something new and high value to keep your dog’s focus on you.
- Make sure you have the proper treats on hand to have a successful training session. Know what you want to work on ahead of time and pack accordingly.
- Practice having your dog work for treats at home. This helps define training time and communicates with them that when you take treats out it is time to work. With this groundwork laid, your dog will already have an idea of what’s expected of him when you go downtown or hit the trail.
- Keep your training time focused and short. Make sure it’s clear to your dog what you want them to do. Sometimes we get caught up in taking things too quickly, which can frustrate both you and your dog. Additionally, you don’t want to work until your dog is so tired or brain dead that they quit taking treats – this will lessen their desire to work for you and make for less effective training.
- Make sure to take your time, have fun, and always end on a high note.