Successful dog training with treats

Treats are important rewards during dog training sessions, but you don’t want him to become dependent on them. Learn to make training treats work for both of you – and how to wean your dog off them when he’s ready.

Like us, dogs repeat behaviors that are rewarded. When dogs associate a particular behavior with a positive consequence, they perform that behavior more often. Because most dogs are highly food-motivated, treats are a powerful reward and effective tool during dog training sessions. But you don’t want to have to carry treats around with you for the rest of your life! Following are some tips to maximize your success when using treats to train your dog – and how to wean him off the goodies once he’s mastered what you’re teaching him.

Making treats work for you

1. Link a word to the treat

When your dog performs a behavior you want during a dog training session, immediately praise him by saying “good” or “yes” and deliver a high quality treat. Use the same word every time. Your praise will become the marker that lets your dog know he did the correct behavior at the instant he did it, and that a treat is coming. Eventually, you will wean your dog off treats — praise, play and affection will be the rewards, and treats will no longer be necessary.

2. Deliver treats quickly

In order for your dog to make an association between his behavior and a reward, deliver the treat as quickly as possible at the instant he performs. When you use a verbal marker, such as saying “good” or “yes”, you have a little extra time because your praise “bridges” the time between your dog’s behavior and the delivery of the treat. But you still need to give the treat within one or two seconds. Otherwise, you may be rewarding a different behavior.

For example, when you ask your dog to sit, you have to give him the treat (or mark the behavior) the moment his bottom touches the ground. If you take time searching for a treat in your pocket, your dog may have already got up by the time he gets his reward. In that case, you would be rewarding him for getting up, not sitting. A pouch you can wear around your waist gives you quick access to treats.

3. Reward, don’t bribe

Treats are rewards for desired behaviors. If your dog does a behavior only when you show him a treat, you’re bribing him. Leave the treat in your pouch or hide it behind your back. As soon as your dog does the behavior, give him the treat. Be patient and resist the temptation to show him the treat in order to get him to do what you want. If he does not perform the behavior, he may either not know it yet, or there may be too many distractions around. Go back to the point where your dog was successful and progress from there.

Certain behaviors may be trained using a treat as a lure. For example, one way to teach your dog to sit is by luring him into the position. With a treat in your hand, slowly move your hand over his nose. As he looks up, his body leans back until he sits. Quickly move away from luring with a treat in your hand to luring with your hand only, in order to prevent your dog from becoming dependent on food rewards. The next step is to attach a word to the desired behavior (“sit”) and move away from luring altogether.

4. Reward one behavior with several treats

When you teach your dog to hold a position for a period of time — for example “sit” or “down” — give him treats while he is still there to reward him for staying in that position. If you give only one treat each time, he may learn to get up soon after because he knows he’ll never get more than one food reward. As your dog progresses, lengthen the time intervals at which you deliver treats until you no longer need them.

Another example in which you would reward your dog with multiple treats is when he does a behavior exceptionally well. Show him how pleased you are by giving him several treats in a row. He just hit the jackpot!

What kind of treats work best?

Use high-value treats that your dog really likes, especially when teaching him a new or difficult behavior or training him in a new environment with distractions. High-value treats are real meats, such as hamburger, steak, chicken or turkey. Cheese is also a favorite. The treats should be small, soft pieces that your dog can swallow quickly. Mixing up a variety of different treats keeps things interesting. Just make sure they agree with your dog’s digestive system. If you are buying dog training treats, avoid those that contain sugar, preservatives, fillers, artificial colors or by-products.

Weaning your dog off training treats

Some people think they’ll have to carry treats around for the rest of their dog’s life. While you want to use a fair number of treats whenever you teach your dog a new or difficult behavior, or introduce him to new distractions, you can start fading out the treats once he has learned the correct behavior, using the following methods:

Reward intermittently

Offer treats randomly instead of every single time. For example, you may ask your dog to sit two times, then give him a treat; ask him to sit four times before giving him a treat; then ask him to sit once and give him a treat. Make it unpredictable. This technique is comparable to a slot machine. Your dog never knows when a treat is coming, but knowing he will eventually get one keeps him motivated.

Use “life rewards”

Also reward your dog with other things he likes. Instead of giving him a treat, give him a belly rub, play fetch, invite him up on the couch, or go for a walk. Anything your dog enjoys can be used as a reward.

Reward several behaviors with one treat

Ask your dog to do a series of behaviors before you give him a treat. For example, ask him to sit, lie down, stay and then come. Praise him for each behavior but only give him a treat at the end. Make sure you switch up the order of the behaviors you ask for, or your dog will quickly figure it out.

Delay the reward

Ask your dog for a behavior, but instead of quickly giving him a treat – as you did when he was still learning — go get a treat from a different room so there is some delay.

Even when you have weaned your dog away from training treats, it’s a good idea to still reward him with food every now and then. We always want to appreciate good behaviors and never take them for granted. It’s also a good idea to carry a couple of treats with you on walks. A motorcycle might backfire or a skateboarder race by. You can quickly turn a scary situation into something less frightening by giving your dog a treat.

What to do if your dog won’t take treats

Some dogs are more motivated by play or affection than food. Use the rewards that motivate your dog the most. However, if your dog is usually food-motivated but won’t take treats during training, consider the following:

  • The treats may not be yummy enough. Try higher-value treats, such as real meats. Many dogs will turn up their nose at kibble but do almost anything for a piece of chicken.
  • Your dog might be stressed. Look at the environment and make sure there are no scary distractions around (barking dogs, running kids, too many people, loud noises, etc.). Increase the distance from what’s making your dog nervous or move the training session to a quieter place.
  • Try smaller pieces. If your dog is stressed or distracted, he won’t want to spend a lot of time chewing.
  • Toss treats from a distance. When working with a fearful dog, toss the treat on the floor instead of feeding from your hand.
  • Try training at a different time. If your dog just ate his dinner, he may not be motivated by food for a while. If he has too much pent-up energy, he may prefer a romp over a calm training session.

Won’t treats lead to weight gain?

Dog training treats should be very small so your dog can eat them quickly. But when you feed him a lot of treats during training sessions, you may want to adjust the quantity of his regular meals to avoid weight gain or an upset stomach. Alternatively, you can again use a portion of your dog’s meal for training, as long as it’s motivating enough for him. Given the number of treats needed during initial training, healthy choices are always recommended.