The use of treats to train dogs was once considered by dog trainers and owners alike to be tantamount to bribery. The concern was the dog would become dependent on getting the treat and when the owner didn’t have one to offer, the dog wouldn’t listen. As methods of training changed, so did ideas and attitudes about the use of treats to motivate dogs to learn. Today, treats are used very effectively and widely when teaching dogs.
Pet retailers who understand the basic rules about how to use food in training can offer relevant, helpful advice to their clients which, in turn, can stimulate customer loyalty. There are a number of things to consider when using treats to train a dog.
Rule 1: Keep the treat small. While the size of the treat will be different for a playful 45-pound 6-monthold Rottweiler puppy than it is for a Maltese puppy of the same age, in all cases, a treat should be small enough for the dog to eat in a second or two. Generally, treats the size of a human adult thumbnail are good for most dogs. What you don’t want is the dog to become distracted from the task at hand. This means keeping the dog focused, which is much harder to do when the dog takes a minute to consume the treat. That and obesity considerations are why treats need to be small, easy to consume and delicious enough to peak their interest and leave them wanting more.
Rule 2: Keep treats hidden when teaching behavior. The old fear that the dog might become dependent on food in order to listen wasn’t completely wrong. The secret to stopping this is to conceal the treat until you give it to the dog. This makes it much harder for the dog to know if you actually have a treat since they can’t see it.
Rule 3: Training treats should be as close to odorless as possible. If the dog can’t see or smell the treat, it won’t know for sure if you have one until after it performs the appropriate behavior. This puts the focus on the behavior and not the treat. Clients can motivate their dogs to work for the reward of a treat without their dogs becoming dependent on them.
The next steps are to use the treats to reward the desired behavior very consistently at first and then intermittently after initial mastery is attained.
Let’s use the “sit” cue as an example. Holding the treat in your fist to hide it, bring your hand across the dogs’ face and slowly over the top of her head. If done correctly most dogs will shift their weight backwards as they try to follow your hand and sit as a result. As the dog starts to sit, give the command “sit.” Once the dog sits, reward with a small food treat and verbal praise. Try this 10-20 times in a row and many dogs will be sitting on cue. That’s one lesson. Do four to six lessons per week with 100 percent food. After the first week or two, and assuming the dog is responding consistently to the cue being taught, start to wean the dog off the treats. The key here is to do it gradually.
To begin the weaning process, decrease the food treats to 80 percent. Most dogs will actually respond better with less food at that point! The reason for this is simple. Consistent rewarding of a desired behavior will teach that behavior. Once it is learned, intermittent reinforcement of the same behavior will strengthen it. Spend the entire next week at 80 percent food rewards. By the following week, start at 70 percent, and the week after at 60 percent. By using this approach, most people can eliminate the use of food in a couple of months.
Using treats to train dogs is a fun, effective way to teach them. Pet retailers who understand the types of treats that work best, and how their clients can most effectively use them, will stand out.