Using Treats In Positive Training

Positive and balanced trainers use A LOT of treats during training sessions when a dog is food motivated. We use positive reinforcement to motivate dogs to learn and make the right choices. In other words, we want the dog motivated to “choose” (on its own) the appropriate behavior over the inappropriate behavior. During initial consultations, pet parents typically have questions about the use of high value treats in the training process. I want to cover a few of the most common questions in this post. If you have additional questions, please contact me! I would love to speak with you about the benefits of this approach!

What are high value treats, and why are they so important to training?
The use of high value treats to motivate dogs to choose the appropriate behavior is critical to the positive training approach. What do I mean when I say “high value”?  “High value” means a treat that your dog finds so valuable, it will do its very best (almost anything) to earn that particular treat. Also, treats given frequently would not be considered "high value".  High value treats should only be given on special occasions or in training mode.

It is important to remember that dogs are no different than humans in this area. For example, some dogs absolutely love the training treats that can be purchased right off the shelf in a pet supply store if they are new and exciting. If so, training treats work fine as a high value treat while in training mode. Other dogs find the training treats to be “just okay” or may not like them at all. If “just okay” treats are used, the training may go very slow or be unsuccessful because the dog is not motivated to learn. This is especially problematic in problem solving training. With that said, during the initial consultation, I spend time helping my clients identify treats appropriate for training. Examples of high value treats could be cheese, liverwurst, hot dogs, boiled or baked chicken with no seasoning, etc.

Should I worry about my dog only performing when I have treats?
Absolutely not if treats are used correctly in the process! Would you work hard at your job if you did not get a paycheck? Is that paycheck what motivates you to work hard and do your best? Using positive training techniques, your dog learns to “think” in order to make good choices. Your dog will learn the behavior that earns the paycheck versus the behavior that earns nothing!

When teaching a new behavior or increasing the complexity of a behavior that is already mastered, high value treats should be the starting point. As your dog masters the behavior, you can start cutting back on the high value treats. You can begin switching over to a lower value treat or just high praise. Your dog will perform behaviors because it thinks- maybe just maybe it will receive the extra special treat! Don’t despair!!! You will not have to keep treats on you or close to you for the rest of your life! But remember, training is a commitment for the life of the dog. Training should continue even after sessions end with a trainer. Treats and praise let your dog know it is doing a great job, and you really like and appreciate what it is doing!

Does it matter when I give a treat during training?
YES!!!!! Remember – you get what you reward. If you give a treat too early or too late, you can accidentally reward the wrong behavior. For example, if you are rewarding a “sit” and your dog gets up as you are delivering the treat – you have just rewarded “stand”. Always give praise and the treats at the exact moment your dog achieves the desired behavior. You are using the treat to mark the desired behavior and help your dog understand exactly what you are expecting.

What if my dog is not food motivated?
From time to time, I encounter dogs that eat to live vs. live to eat. High value treats like chicken, liver, or cheese did not solve the motivation problem. Unfortunately, this type of dog is a little more challenging to train, but do not despair! There are other options. For example, your dog may value your attention and praise more than anything on earth. Wonderful! Excited praise is a wonderful treat! Your dog may love a good game of fetch or tug more than anything on earth. Terrific! Good performance in training can be rewarded with a quick game of tug or fetch. The important thing is – find what your dog values the most!

I hope this post provided good information to use on your training journey!

Until next time,