NO REALLY, TREAT VALUE MATTERS!
Updated: May 18
I regularly meet with clients where, depending on the training locale or context, the deliciousness of the food being offered dramatically affects training outcome. Skimping on the value of the treats can lead to training failure.
This applies even to dogs typically described as highly food motivated. I regularly meet dogs who will do back flips of joy for a piece of kibble or a moderately tasty treat at home. But in a challenging training situation, or during a potentially stressful event, this same food will be utterly rejected. And their owners are always so surprised.
For wholesomeness and also lower cost, I often recommend things like fresh bits of roast chicken, steak, turkey, hotdog, and/or cheddar cheese, as long as the dog's tummy tolerates the food. However, if you're vehemently against using "people food", there are protein-based dog treats that often excite many dogs' tastebuds, like this. Another option, and another.
Yesterday, I met with a wonderful client and her dog at a park location. To explain briefly, our plan was to safely expose the dog to things she historically lunges and barks at, positioning ourselves at a comfortable distance so no barking was actually triggered. Each sighting is followed by treats, and with repetition, a dog will acquire a more positive emotional response to these things, and thus the barking/lunging reaction is no longer triggered. For this dog, barking is normally elicited by unknown people (especially men), horses, people ON horses, and bikers.
My client accidentally forgot to bring her treat pouch of yummy treats, and I was only carrying medium-value treats in mine. When the dog flat-out rejected one of those treats, the client was shocked, saying the dog normally loves them. Thankfully the other treat I had was sufficient for the work we were doing and we had several quiet, positive exposures to various things the dog is normally reactive toward.
But here’s the cool thing: when our lesson was done, the client went home, got some cheese, and returned to the park. Here’s a portion of the email report I received afterwards, with a subject line reading “Success!” –
“Shelby liked the cheese so much she let two horse riders walk past her as well as a man with dogs and young moms with strollers. Gave her cheese in the car when riders were approaching and she didn't bark.”
Immediately after this lesson, I met another client whose super-joyful puppy has a hard time controlling her enthusiasm when guests arrive. It’s one thing to do repeated jumping on the guest, but this pup also pees in excitement, which can get on the guest’s shoes or pants. So it’s necessary for the owner to settle the pup a bit before a calmer greeting can take place with the guest, and very high-value treats are needed to earn her attention. This pup has a sensitive tummy, so special care is needed to find the right food for the job. I recommend identifying the protein(s) in the special dog food prescribed by the vet, and then purchasing, cooking, and using the fresh version as a high-value treat.
My final example is of my own dog, WildeBean. She is extremely enthusiastic at the beginning of her walk, and also highly motivated to chase prey. Historically, if I offered anything other than high-value treats, she'd routinely reject it, at least during the first half of the walk. But if I have meat or cheese to reinforce the behaviors I desire, she’s highly motivated to work for that, and we've moved toward our goal behaviors much more swiftly.
I’m all about efficient training and a happily motivated student. So folks, trust your trainer when s/he tells you high-value treats are important. and specifically what treats to test-run with your dog to find their doggie version of crack!
Are high-value treats the sole answer, guaranteed to get results with every dog in every context? Of course not, but in 90% of the work I do, it's an extremely helpful training tool.
Need help leveraging non-food reinforcers more effectively? I'd be glad to help!
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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