Treats allow us to build skills quickly, and are an important tool in our positive reinforcement training arsenal.
Most of my dogs have been absolute food hogs, happy to snarf up any ordinary tidbit I offer with nary a complaint. But I regularly meet clients’ dogs who are picky, picky, picky when it comes to treats they deem worthy of focus and effort.
As trainers, we need to assess whether the treats we’re offering during training sessions are actually valuable to the dog in that moment.
The value a dog places on a treat is going to fluctuate depending on the situation. For instance, an ordinary biscuit may be highly motivating when you’re teaching something in a low-distraction area, like inside your house. But if you’ve got a dog who self-identifies as a chipmunk assassin (yes, WildeBean, I’m talking about you), you’re gunna need to be packing the doggie version of crack during the teaching process if you expect to compete with the stripey allure of the 'munk.
Ah, yes, that look of intense joy when tastiness meets tongue.
If Fido is focused and eager to work with you, you’re packing the good stuff. If he’s overly excited, you may need to dial back the tastiness. If he’s only eating the food after you stuff it directly down his gullet, then you’ve got a problem. (And who approved of this gullet-stuffing anyway??)
Although dogs have unique preferences for treats, protein-based goodies generally score high on the taste-approval scale. Try tiny bits of fresh chicken, steak, cheese, or hotdog. There are also single protein treats available at pet stores in freeze-dried form, like beef or lamb liver/lung, chicken, salmon, etc. Meat baby food in a easy-to-palm jar is also considered splendid by some dogs, and you can offer one lick at a time. Experiment to discover what really floats your dog's boat. I tend to prefer fresh food both for the apparent deliciousness to dogs, and the lower cost!
If the food is new to him, start slowly to be sure it doesn't upset his tummy. If he has a sensitive tummy and is on a restricted diet, look at the ingredient list to suss out the protein sources used in the formula. Then buy the fresh version to cook for treats.
Warm treats are more tasty than cold ones.
Stinky is good. Your dog won’t care if you walk around smelling like a fishmonger the rest of the day.
Treat variety keeps things interesting, so mix it up.
A keen appetite yields improved focus during training, especially in more challenging scenarios, so schedule training sessions before feeding a regular meal.
Tiny, pre-cut treats provide a yummy taste sensation without filling your dog up too quickly.
Non-crumbly treats are best, otherwise your dog may spend too much time trying to hunt down the crumbs that land on the floor, rather than quickly returning his focus to you after a treat is consumed. (Over-cooked chicken, for instance, tends to be crumbly, as are some cheeses.)
A treat pouch allows for convenient access to goodies and is highly recommended for use during walks. I really like this version because it's roomy, and convenient for all sized family members to sling over their shoulder.
Of course, there are fantabulous non-food reinforcers that will be even more effective than food in specific training contexts. That’ll be the topic of a future blog.
Virginia Dare is a certified dog trainer & behavior counselor with decades of experience. Her business offers live video consultations anywhere in the US for training and behavior help, puppy matchmaking services, and pre- and post-arrival counseling for new puppies. She also provides in-home, private lessons and behavior consultations in northern Fairfield and Westchester counties, western New Haven county, Putnam and southern Dutchess counties.
Please visit www.NorthStarCanines.com/services to learn more, or contact me at 804.784.0120
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