Tuesday Training Tip: What’s All the Business about Treats in Training?

Mama Sally:

Lots of people give their dogs treats.  That’s nothing new in America for sure!  Walk into any pet store, and you’re going to see that Americans love to give treats to their dogs, because there is row after row of treats, and a million choices out there!  However, why we give our dog those treats while we are training them is the subject of today’s blog!

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I like to ask owners questions when I work with them, because their answers tell me what their understanding is, and then I know what I need to explain to them.  What I find, is that almost every single time, dog owners really don’t capture the full meaning of why we give treats as we train until I explain it to them.  I hear all kinds of responses from them:

  • Because the dog was good
  • Because the dog performed the given command
  • I don’t know
  • To let him know you like him and what he did
  • Because it will make him happy
  • To get the dog to trust me

What a range of answers I hear!!  I always pause in training to explain why we give treats, because understanding this point can be a complete deal breaker in positive reinforcement training!  When I train dogs, I’m never doing things randomly, but carefully crafting what I want the dog to do to shape the behavior that I want from him.

In order for treats to have any impact at all for a dog, there are some things that have to be in place:

  • The dog must like the treat
  • The dog must want the treat

If the dog doesn’t like the treats offered, he’s not going to work very hard for them.  And, if the dog doesn’t want the treat, he’s not going to offer any desired behavior to get them.  Make sure your dog likes and wants the treats you offer!

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Those of you with anxious, fearful or nervous dogs may find that your dogs aren’t interested in treats when they are in a worried state. When I feel worried, food is the last thing that I want as well!  I use food as a barometer to test how calm and relaxed a dog feels when I’m training.  If a dog is generally very happy to get a treat, and he shows no interest in something that he normally would, I know that he feels worried or anxious.  For the sake of this blog, let’s keep distractions to a minimum, and work in a dog’s known comfort zone to make it more likely that he will be interested in treats.

When I mark a specific behavior and immediately (1-2 secs) offer a treat to a dog, I am increasing the likelihood that the dog will repeat that given behavior for me.  That’s the sole reason that I’m offering treats in training!  I want to increase the likelihood that the dog will repeat the given behavior for me.

Dogs are so smart and generally pretty quick about figuring out what I want from them!  They quickly figure out a pattern, and it’s not long at all before I’m seeing them produce specific behavior consistently.

In short, the reason that we offer treats in training, is because we are reinforcing the given behavior that the dog is providing for us.  Lots of things can reinforce a given behavior….not necessarily treats alone.  In order for something to positively reinforce your dog’s behavior, he has to like it, and he has to want it.

This is why it’s a good idea to have several types of treats, with various values to your dog.  When there are little to no distractions, lower value treats will work…like your dog’s kibble or a dry cookie/cracker biscuit type treat.  When you are working with more intense distractions, your dog is working harder, so he will expect a treat that has a higher value to him….think meat!

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When I am training something new with Rugby, if it happens to be something that he’s struggling with, when he does figure it out, I offer him a “jackpot!”  This is several small bites all in a row.  Normally, he gets one treat to reinforce his behavior, but a “jackpot” is usually 3-5 small treats given quickly all at once.  You should see his little eyes pop out of his head as he makes a mental note to try that behavior again!!  A “jackpot” can really help your dog understand what you want when he is riding that struggle bus during your training session.

I will let Rugby summarize for you!

Rugby James:

When the Mama and me is working togedder, she gets fings all ready before we start.  She always gets treats ready sos she can capture my behavior right when I does it.  She always uses treats what I likes and wants.  Sumtimes she works wif me right at suppertime on account of I’m really hungry then, so I work extra hard to get a bite of sumping tasty!  She always uses the same words and the same hand signal sos I can find the consistent pattern.

When we are learning sumping new, I’m always working very hard to understand what the Mama wants me to do.  Sumtimes, I just get frustrated if I work too long and doesn’t earn anyfing.  So the Mama makes sure our sessions is short and sweet.  And, when I figure sumping out for the first time, she gives me a “jackpot” what is lotsa treats….one right after the udder really fast.  I lubs “jackpots” and I work extra hard to get extra treats like that, sos I really pays good attention to make sure I gets it ezactly right!

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We does stuff like this when I normally would be reactive, like the garbage disposer noise what I doesn’t like at all.  The Mama gets a stack of treats ready, and as soon as she flips the switch, she stuffs several treats in my mouf.  She uses high value treats…my very favorites sos I will want to focus and work.  This also helps me understand that the noise is a good fing and not a bad fing what I gotsa bark at.  Over time, she lets the noise happen more, and I get less treats once I see that fings is okay wif the noise and I get it figured out.  To really be effective, the Mama does this every single time she turns on the garbage disposer, sos it’s consistent training every time.

The Mama always uses her happy “Good boy, Rugby” voice when we works, and I gets good pets and sweet talk what helps encourage me along the way too.

This stuff is how we learned to be a team togedder!  We keep working  togedder a fun experience wif lotsa good rewards what I likes and I wants!  Go try it wif your own dogger!!  You’ll have more fun than a barrel of monkeys!!

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