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January 4, 2016

As pet owners enter the New Year and put the holiday distractions behind them, many will have training their unruly dogs on their resolution list. Dog training has undergone a revolution in the last 30 years. Today, focus is on rewarding and strengthening positive behaviors as opposed to punishing unacceptable ones. Aside from being easier on the dog, positive and gentle dog training methods give pet retailers the opportunity to offer dog owners a staggering variety of training treats. The question from a training standpoint is: which types are best?

There are several qualities that dog trainers look for in training treats.

Palatability

A treat’s palatability is both simple and complex. The simple part: Treats dogs love will be a more powerful reward and motivator than treats they do not.

The complex part is that different dogs like different treats, so there is no magic formula that every dog loves. Generally, dogs prefer meat-laden snacks—the more meat and less filler, the better. That being said, I know people whose dog’s favorite treat is—believe it or not—an ice cube.

Size

A treat’s size is an important consideration. Ideally, a dog treat is consumable in a single bite and provides a burst of wonderful flavor that the dog connects positively with the specific behavior the owner is trying to reinforce. The dog eats it and, within seconds, is looking at his owner for more. Therefore, the treats need to be bite-size—not meal-size. Treats that take a dog more than three seconds to consume are distracting and not ideal for training.

Additionally, some dogs have a weight challenge. This makes it important not to overfeed them with gigantic treats. Obviously, a Great Dane will take larger bites than a Pomeranian will, so stocking small, medium and large bite-sized treats is a good idea.

Hardness

From a dog’s perspective, a treat’s hardness usually will not matter. However, harder treats often take longer to consume and might be more difficult for older dogs or very young puppies to chew. Since most treats are not bite-size to start, customers may have to break them into the proper size for their dogs. Very hard treats make this difficult and thus are less desirable. For these reasons, I recommend offering treats that are soft enough to easily break into small pieces with your fingers.

Odor

In a dog’s world, smelly is good. Strong food odors are usually powerful motivators to eat, which can be a problem when using treats during training. Most owners will want to get their dogs to the point where they no longer have to use treats to motivate behavior. This means delivering treats in such a way that dogs never know for sure if they are going to get one.  Even if the treats are hidden from the dogs’ view, strong odors let dogs know that a treat is coming, causing them to act accordingly. Therefore, nearly odorless treats are better for training.

Tips for Use

A typical mistake novice dog trainers and owners make is holding treats in their hands for dogs to see and then asking for a response. When the dog sits, the owner praises them and gives a treat. After a dozen or so repetitions, most dogs will catch on and sit like champs. The challenge occurs when the owners ask their dog to sit and no treat is visible. Dog owners will usually see a marked decrease in response. This is one of the main reasons why dog treats were widely rejected by trainers for many years.

Do your customers want a dog that only listens when they have food in their hands? The solution is not to reject training treats—it is to avoid creating a visual dependency on them. In other words, they need to be kept hidden in owners’ hands or in a treat bag. If the dog cannot see the treat, owners can avoid visual dependency and thus phase treats out in the future.

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