Updated Aug 30, 2022
Treat Training is one branch of Positive Reinforcement Training or Reward Training. You've no doubt heard those terms. They have become very popular in dog training discussions recently but are, in fact, as old as the hills.
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A training treat is simply the easiest way to give the reward in Reward Training. The simplest way to get the job done.
How Does Reward Training Work?
It works like this...
In order to persuade your dog to do anything, there has to be something in it for him. Yes, even dogs are driven by WIIFM (What's In It For Me).
Once your dog has learned a trick, or any kind of behavior, he will do it because he knows it will cause you pleasure, and earn him respect, love and affection.
But, in the beginning, you're going to have to bribe him to get the learning started!
The obvious way is to give him a dog training treat to reward the good behavior. But, of course, like anything else to do with dogs, there are mixed opinions about this.
Don't Overfeed Your Dog With Training Treats
The main objection is that you will overfeed your dog by giving him lots of treats.
And it's a valid objection — you really don't want your canine companion to become overweight. Carrying excess weight is a real health hazard for your dog. Obviously, we love our dogs, we want the best for them, and we want them around as long as possible. So we don't let them become overweight.
But, that doesn't mean we can't use treats for reward training.
There's a few things we can do...
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Here's How To Handle The Training Treats/Overfeeding Issue
Many people use kibble for training treats. After all, it's definitely something your dog wants, and it's already in nice small pieces.
But, if kibble is already part of your dog's diet, you don't want to be giving him extra. So don't. Simply hold a cup back from his normal meal and save it for training treats. Bingo! Your pup gets treats for doing what you want to teach him, but he eats nothing extra.
There are other things you can use as treats, too...
Here Are Some Good Things You Can Use As Training Treats
Fruit and vegetables can make good dog treats.
I have written before about how we give our Cane Corsos an apple every evening. They absolutely love it. And it's good for them.
You can cut up an apple into small pieces for training treats. Put the pieces in a plastic bag, and dip in to give your dog one, every time he successfully completes the trick.
You can do the same with:
You can also dehydrate liver in a low oven and cut into small pieces. Or give small pieces of chicken.
Peanut butter is loved by just about all dogs and it's fine to give it to them, as long as you don't give them too much.
Also, be absolutely sure that the peanut butter has only natural ingredients — there are some artificial sweeteners and other additives that are dangerous for a dog.
Peanut butter is not very convenient for a training treat and it's easy to give a dog too much over the training session.
Maybe dip a piece of carrot or apple in natural peanut butter at the end of your training session, as one special healthy treat with extra flavor
The thing with all the above is to take it out of their normal food allowance, so that they are NOT being overfed.
Also you want to keep training sessions short, anyway. Otherwise the dog may lose focus. So, the short session means you're not likely to give a huge amount of extra food.
But, still, a little extra every day can build into a lot extra over time, and result in an overweight dog
So, however much you give your dog in the way of training treats, keep track of it, and make your dog's normal meal that much smaller.
One last thing. All the above are healthy dog treats, with natural ingredients. They are suggested on the basis that they are good for your dog.
Remember we said at the beginning that your dog's well-being is paramount?
Bad Things You Should Never Use As Training Treats
In order to make sure that we adhere to that — avoid the following items for use as treats...
Raisins and chocolate are toxic. Human snacks like Cheetos, Cheese puffs, potato chips — anything of that nature is really bad for your dog.
It may seem that a little here and there can't hurt but, as we said above, a little extra can aggregate into a lot extra over time. So, do your dog a big favor and keep things like this completely out of his intake.
List: Things You Should Avoid For Your Dog
Here's a list of big no-nos. There are many more, but I'm sure you get the idea.
Yes, it's easy to give these things to your dog. And the dog loves them. So it's easy to kid yourself and say 'Where's the harm?' But they are harmful, and your dog will pack on weight quicker than a Christmas turkey.
So be firm, be a good dog owner, and do the right thing.
Alternatives To Treats For Training
There are other reasons why some people are not keen on treats for a training reward. Some feel that you should not have to constantly bribe your dog with treats in order to get his attention and affection.
There is, of course, some validity in this.
Having said that, with treat training, it is never the idea to keep giving a dog treats forever. The treats are used to get the ball rolling, as a way to get the dog to understand what you want him to do.
Once the dog's behavior is in line with what you want, you would give fewer and fewer treats, replacing the treat with what is known as real-life rewards.
What Are Real-Life Rewards
Real-life rewards is really just a catch-all term for any kind of reward which is not a food reward.
With most dogs, there is nothing quite like a treat to get the dog's attention when you are first teaching him something. But, once the behavior is learned, other things can be used to reward your dog for doing it.
The most common and effective real-life rewards are:
It varies from dog to dog but, generally, these are very important in your dog's life.
Some dogs are more independent than others, but most dogs enjoy a close relationship with their owner and these three things are a demonstration and reinforcement of that relationship.
So, of course, giving treats should not be the only way you reward your dog. You can use any of the above things as a reward for doing something you have taught him.
Another alternative to treat training is...
Clicker training would need an article of its own to explain fully. But the gist of it is this:
The clicker provides a uniform and consistent sound that the dog is quickly able to recognize. You could just as well use any source of sound — including your voice -- but a clicker is very quick, easy and efficient.
You first use the clicker in conjunction with giving the treat — click then treat immediately.
The dog learns that the click is followed by a reward. Gradually you withdraw the treat by giving a real-life reward, as described above.
So, the training treat has a very valuable role in training your dog — it will get the learning process started very quickly for most dogs.
And there is no need to let it become a problem. The issue of potential over-eating is easily addressed by keeping track of what your dog is given and adjusting his main meal accordingly.
And both the overfeeding issue and the concern about having to constantly bribe your dog to do anything are addressed by shifting to real-life rewards as soon as possible.
Use treat training for its intended use — to get the ball rolling.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it good to train your dog with treats?
It's fine to train your dog with threats -- as long as:
- You only give your dog treats which are good for him
- You don't give him too much, so that he is overfed
- You have a clear to goal to use the treats for a short period initially, then you switch to other forms of reward -- such as attention, touch and affection.
For most dogs, training treats are by far the most effective way to get the learning started.
Can you send your dog away to be trained?
You can send your dog away to be trained. There may be some benefits, but some of the major elements of dog behavior are not addressed by doing it this way. Consequently, it may not be the most effective way to get the dog trained.
The most significant part of your dog's behavior response is based on his relationship with you. His relationship with an external dog trainer is another thing altogether and is not in play at all when it's just you and your dog.
In any given situation, the dog is reacting instinctively to his relationship with another person. You, as the dog owner, need to understand how that works, what is happening between you, and how you can control it. You don't get any of that from sending your dog away to be trained by someone else.