By Lisa Benshoff, CPDT-KA, Talbot TTouch llc, Easton
In my last post, on the positive interrupt, I recommended not using dry biscuits. That prompted a loyal reader to suggest that I write about treats this month. I liked that idea since it gives me a chance to not only recommend some healthy, tasty treats, but also to dispel a few misconceptions about using them.
First, treats are paws-down, the fastest, most effective way to train. They make it easy to get a rapid series of repetitions, to build “muscle memory.” Treats are also used to create pleasant associations with new things (classical conditioning) or things that a dog finds scary (classical counter-conditioning). If your dog loves them, you will see more eagerness for learning in general, as well as quicker training success.
Positive-reinforcement trainers often encounter people who are very stingy with treats, on the grounds that they don’t want their dog to get fat. Rubbish! I have never seen this actually happen, although it certainly could if your dog is inactive, your treats are starchy or heavily sweetened, and you’re already overfeeding.
My own dogs get from 20 to 50 treats each per day, and they are definitely on the lean side. It really matters what the treats are made of (see below) and what size they are. They should be tiny (about the size of a little fingernail) and as nutritious as their food. They should not be like doggy cookies and candy. My dogs earn them by making good choices on their own, not just for responding to cues. Many are dispensed on walks—for checking in with me; coming away from other dogs, deer, and people; and walking on a loose leash.
Show Me the Money
Another misconception is that treats are just bribes. Well yes, if they appear before your dog does the desired behavior. For example, you say Come and then hold out a treat to lure him to you. Used that way, the treat becomes part of the cue. No wonder this dog waits for the food to appear before responding. Then these people will say, “He’s stubborn. He won’t do anything without food.” But that’s what happens if Come was trained that way.
Treats may be used as a lure, very briefly, to start training a brand-new behavior, but that’s quite different. Good trainers know that the treat comes after the desired behavior. That’s a reward, not a bribe.
Someone else who commented on my last post said that while the positive interrupt may work to get a pet dog to come away from barking at the window, it would simply teach a working dog to bark at the window “to con you out of a snack.” Apart from my objection to that assumption, I found it interesting that a working dog would be considered smarter (or more devious) than a pet dog. And I was dismayed by the attitude that learning to do something in the hope of getting a food reward means that your dog is trying to manipulate you.
This attitude probably stems from the seriously misguided and outdated notion that dogs should want only to please us, not to earn something for their selfish enjoyment. Oh please! Dogs—just like people—need to be motivated to perform any behavior we’d like, and let’s not forget how very important food is to animals. Using it for training doesn’t somehow cheapen your relationship. Behavior is driven by consequences. Why not use this law of behaviorism to our mutual advantage?
Mix It Up!
There’s a hierarchy of reinforcers for every dog. Be aware that their value depends on the situation. So while dry treats (or kibble) may work fine for getting a Sit in the house, break out the high-value food for new training, especially in challenging environments. Outdoors, you may need to go up to bits of meat or cheese. It always depends on what you’re competing with for attention. You will know whether the value is high enough by your dog’s responses.
Some people claim their dog doesn’t care for treats. I try not to laugh, and show them how quickly and eagerly he or she will respond when offered moist treats with a captivating smell. Especially when used with a clicker. Their treats are often dry biscuits that are about as appealing as baked sawdust. A box of giant, dusty Milk Bones comes to mind. Would you be willing to work for a Saltine?
Moving Away From the Food
Once a cue works anywhere and almost every time, you can “fade” the food gradually until it becomes random. But don’t stop all reinforcement or else the response will probably deteriorate. This is another law of behaviorism. People often stop reinforcing too soon, way before the behavior is well-learned and generalized.
After that, though, you can branch out and use non-food rewards. Think of other things your dog loves and will work for, and use those instead of treats: excited praise, a chest or butt scratch, toys, games, or real-life rewards like a walk, a ride in the car, opening the door to chase squirrels, etcetera. A pat on the head or Good boy is not strong enough for most dogs.
You get to decide what’s healthy, but your dog gets to decide what’s delicious. You can test for preferences by holding out both hands closed, with a different treat in each one.
Here are the brands I use most frequently, that nearly always get two paws up. Most are chewy, a few are crunchy, and they come in several delicious flavors. I get them from Chewy.com, where prices are much lower than at the big pet stores. Mixing up three or four different kinds in my treat bag makes training sessions even more fun and effective.
Food rolls make great (and economical) treats. Just refrigerate first, so they don’t crumble when you slice and dice.
Another great option is to use a super-premium food as treats. My two favorites:
For dogs watching their weight, Leanlix is food in a tube, also available in several yummy-sounding flavors. Grass-Fed Beef, for example, has only 1 calorie per 40 licks!
Or make your own! See below.
How to Choose Treats
The Whole Dog Journal, an excellent resource for all things canine, regularly publishes articles on what to look for and what to avoid in dog foods, treats, and chews. To summarize, the fresher, fewer, and less processed the ingredients, the better. Look for treats that contain whole foods and recognizable ingredients, with natural preservatives such as Vitamins C and E (“mixed tocopherols”).
Avoid nonspecific ingredients like meat meal and animal fat, any byproducts, food coloring, chemical preservatives (like BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin), anything from China, and artificial humectants (i.e., propylene glycol).
Copyright Lisa Benshoff 2017
Lisa serves on our Board and is instrumental in helping keep our animals happy!