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Pawsitive Training for Better Dogs

Pawsitive Training for Better Dogs

Treats and Training

Dog bones

Many people ask, “Why do I need to use treats to train my dog?  Shouldn't my dog work simply to please me?”  Well, would you go to work if you knew you weren't getting a paycheck?  How would your performance be if you knew that all you'd get is a “thank you” from your boss at the end of the day?  How hard would you really work?

Now, think of your dog.  Does he show more interest in working hard when he knows that there's going to be a huge “paycheck” (treats)?  Sure he does... and so would you!  So don't think that you're spoiling your dog by rewarding good behavior.  You're simply paying him well for work well done.  And you're establishing a great working relationship in the process!

Remember, the fastest and easiest way to get your dog's attention when beginning training is with treats.  However, it is important to remember that you will not need to use treats forever in order to have a responsive dog.

New behaviors are taught by luring your dog into the position you want (like a sit) with a treat.  You reward your dog with treats and praise when your dog does what you want.  Once your dog learns what you want him to do, you must begin to slowly phase out the treats, but continue the praise.  

If you neglect to phase out the treats, you will end up with a dog that will work only when treats are around.  Here are some answers to common questions about training using treats:  


What kind of treat should I use?

The most important thing about treats is that your dog must love them.  Pick up a small variety of different treats and watch how your dog responds to them.  Among my dog's favorites are dried salmon, freeze-dried liver, and Baa-Baa Q's.

Remember, the fastest and easiest way to get your dog's attention when beginning training is with treats.

When you are beginning training with your dog, you should use small, soft treats that are about the size of a pea.  The easier it is for your dog to eat the treat, the faster you can work with your dog.  Make sure that you break the treats into small pieces if they are not small already. I like to use Natural Balance dog food rolls; you can cut it up into little pieces and not make too much of a mess.  It comes in several flavors and sizes, and most dogs love it.  You can also find various soft treats at your local pet store.  Prepare an ample amount of treats before you begin the training session.  This helps to keep your dog focused on training and not you fiddling around with treats.

It never hurts to make a doggie "trail mix".  This is a mix of your dog's favorite treats all mingled together.  This keeps your dog from getting bored with the same treat over and over again.  Every now and then throw in an extra special treat like cooked pasta, a piece of grilled chicken breast, cheese, or even a few slices of a cooked hot dog.  These extra special rewards should be reserved for when your dog has done something really good.

How do I use treats?

When you start your training, you should always have a small training pouch available to carry your treats around in.  Remember that the faster your reward your dog, the greater the chances are that your dog will repeat the behavior.  Treat bags make it extremely convenient for you to reward your dog immediately whenever he does something good.  

While I prefer Doggone Good's ProTrainer Clicker Bait Bag , you can easily pick up an inexpensive carpenter's apron from most hardware stores for about a buck.  Your treat bag should not make any noise; if you use the bag the treats came in, your dog will start listening for the crinkle of the bag instead of focusing on you.  It should be easily accessible near your waist during training.

You will not have to carry around your treat bag forever!  After you've been training for a few weeks with your handy treat bag, you will notice that your dog gets extremely focused on you when the treat bag appears.  At this time you will need to wean yourself from relying on it.

Start by leaving the treat bag on a shelf or table where your dog cannot get to it, but close to where you will be training.  Ask for a sit, then get the treat from the bag on the shelf.  Eventually you will place the treats where your dog cannot see where you gain access to them from.  This will train your dog to understand that neither the treat bag nor the treats have to be visible in order for them to appear.

What if my dog won't work for treats?

Make sure that your dog is hungry before you begin training.  A good time to do a quick training session is in the morning before your dog is fed.  A hungry dog is a motivated dog!

If your dog still isn't responding to the treats, try changing the treats you have.  Even my own dog will get tired of liver treats if I give them to him all the time!  Find several types of treats that your dog loves and rotate them when you train.

Look at your training environment.  Dogs that are highly distracted, stressed, or uncomfortable in their surroundings won't take treats.  Begin training in a quiet area indoors that is free of distractions.

Will my dog only work for treats?

Dogs that are shown a treat before each time they are asked to do something are being taught to only work when treats are around.  This is why we recommend that treats should always be presented in a closed fist.  

Keeping a treat hidden in a closed fist removes the visual presence of the treat, and will teach your dog to work with you even though he can't see the treat.  This accomplishes two things: 

  • Your dog will begin to watch your closed fist as a signal that a treat is coming
  • It sets you up for when you will eventually phase out the treats once your dog understands what you want him to do.  Over time, you will replace treats with other fun rewards (like play, belly rubs, a walk outside, etc.)

What if I ask my dog to do something without a treat and he doesn't respond?

Please note that effectively phasing out treats only works if you're not giving your dog everything else in life for free.  What value does your dog place on your attention if he gets it all the time for just being cute?  

In order to make your interaction with your dog as valuable as possible, you must have him work for everything.  You want dinner?  Sit.  You want a belly rub?  Sit.  Lie down.  You want to play fetch?  Sit.  Want to go for a walk?  Sit.  These are known as real-life rewards.

This method of lifestyle modification is called NILIF, which stands for "Nothing In Life Is Free".  Before you start NILIF, you must be sure that your dog at least knows "sit".  

How will you know?  Say "sit" once to your dog while you have a hot dog or piece of cheese.  If his hind end hits the floor so hard that it rattles the windows, then you can be fairly sure that he knows what "sit" means.  

So if you're sure he knows "sit" for treats, then ask only once to "sit" for a real life reward.  If he shows no response, he gets no reward.  Simply walk away and remove your attention from him.  Try it again five minutes later.

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