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Using Treats in Training

Updated: Aug 20, 2021

A dog learns from the consequences of its actions, does this get me what i like or not, regardless of our input something will still be learned, is this worth my time yes or no? This learning will occur regardless of our involvement!

I often have people say things like: “but he’s paying the food attention and not me” “I can’t get him todo anything unless i have food in my hand” “he’s just not interested in food at all” “I’ve been told its just bribery“ “its it teasing?” And these are all very valid points and questions so i will try to cover these below.

Left to their own devices, dogs can learn a great deal of things that would not allow them to live harmoniously in human society

121 dog training put a strong emphasis on being involved in what your puppy learns so that you end up with the dog you dreamed of living with!

Of course its not all about the treats, Many factors can affect the dog’s ability to learn, including the environment, the stress level of the puppy, the currency (reward/treat) and the dogs relationship with the person who is teaching it. So first things first lets make sure none of these other issues are getting in the way

  • training in a place of little distraction. (Check)

  • dog is not afraid or reacting or likely to be. (Check)

  • we have a good trusting bond with our dogs. (Check)

I cannot stress enough how important it is for you to practice all training away from distraction first, build on the level of distraction from nothing to the biggest squirrel in the park with time and repetition, you wouldn’t take an opera to opening night without rehearsals.

Now get your treats at the ready and what currency you use is very important for the success of your training. In the eyes of your dog, not all food or praise is rated equally. From his perspective, kibble or dry food & biscuits will be rated lower, whereas something like chicken, dried liver or liver cake, or a piece of cheese rates very high.

Food/reward in ££

££££££ Liver cake / Chase A Ball

££££ Cheese / Tug Of War

£££ Chicken / Play Chase

££ Soft Smelly Dog Treats

£ Dried Dog Treats / Pat on the Head

Free - Dog Food / Good Boy

(This may be subject to your dogs personal preference)

So you can see, why should your dog work and feel enthused todo anything slightly taxing for a measly bit of food he can have later in the day anyway. Many of the behaviors we want our dogs to do are not top of their priority list, this is why the treats are extreamly important, we are putting what we want them todo at the top of their list or priorities. Teaching them particular behaviors such as walking without pulling on the lead, calling them away from a fabulous wrestling match with their pals, or requesting that they don’t sniff a dead pigeon may prove to be challenging for anyone who does not work to install this first crucial step in training, GIVING REWARDS.

That’s what the food is all about: it is the motivator, a currency they understand and want to have, the drive for the food is what we use to our advantage in training, It is payment for a job well done. So lets imagine the squirel running up the tree and around in the leaves….. to watch the squirrel and chase the squirrel will be a ££££££££ style reward so the dog learns chasing squirrels are soooooooo much fun and thus the likelyhood of the dog doing it again when he is faced with the same situation is very high. He has learnt chasing squirrels in rewarding. To then combat this extreamly rewarding behaviour we must bring out the big guns and make returning to us more rewarding then the squirrel so the dog learns we have the higher reward which will always win in the mind of the dog. Without upping the anti and offering a worthwhile currency and practicing you cannot expect to beat the squirrel.

Let me put this another way, if you where to offer your dog 2 hands, in one is their daily kibble and in the other is liver cake… which one will they likely go for first? Liver Cake of course (unless they are a Lab then they will likely have both before you can blink hehehe) ok now imagine swapping that liver cake for a cat and with your kibble in the other hand which one are they going to go for now? The Cat obviously! But now imagine swapping that Kibble up for some Liver cake and make it a tray full with your loving attention and praise while the cat is sat still, which one is your dog likely to go for now? Quite possibly the liver cake and your attention right?!…. Ok now lets remove the cat as well…. Which hand how? 100% the Liver Cake right?! So now you can teach your dog to do anything for you and they will learn doing these things brings a high reward, so are much more likely to do these behaviours again until we are able to proof our training then ween them off the treats. check this out for more info on how to Proof & Ween.

We need to give them a reason to want to check in with us or perform a behavior we request. Would you work for free? Probably not, so why would your dog? Food is one of the most potent motivators for animals and since they won’t accept cash, teach your puppy using food.

Food is considered a primary reinforcer.

If we look at the science behind this, according to Panksepp (2019) our brains have a set of circuits and one of these is called the SEEKING system, this is the system that all animals have to help us live, it’s the one that is activated for survival, to look for food when we are hungry or water when we are thirsty and even social interactions. With dogs, when we activate the seeking system the dog is positively charged to follow it threw to receive the reward that comes from satisfying the need. If we do not satisfy their need for that reward they will look elsewhere for it or start to get frustrated and mischievous. We have all herd of Pavlov’s dogs and classical conditioning, this is the other half of the science because we can also condition our dogs to feel good doing the behaviour we ask of them if we reward frequently with high currency treats.

Walt Disney was wrong, A dog is not born wanting to please us and carry out our bidding. A food-motivated dog is a good thing, so when you say “he only pays attention to me when i have food” well done!! Thats exactly the point, keep doing what your doing until your ready to proof and ween! A behavior that is reinforced with a treat (coming to you or sitting) is more likely to occur again. I like talk about common sense training in my classes, that’s simply rewarding your dog with a treat every time they do something good without even being told. This is classical conditioning and food rewards at its easiest.

Food treats should be tiny (a small green pea in size), tasty, and smelly And always held at your dogs nose so they know you have it. It is important to make the distinction that the food is not a bribe. Do you think of your salary as an immoral or dishonest incentive? Working with treats is a form of positive reinforcement and if your timing is right you will not be teasing or bribing your dog, you will simply just be reminding them you hold the highest value.

As a certain behavior become more reliable and after proofing you may not need to use treats as much but as I once heard the wonderful Dr. Susan Friedman say, ‘If I am there to cue a behavior, I am there to reinforce it!’ Food is a powerful training tool and an important one Don’t be in a hurry to not use it.

When and How To Work With Food

In the beginning or while training anything new be liberal with your treats, little treats used often. If we look at shaping, this involves rewarding for little movements in the right direction until you have shaped the final behaviour your looking for, all the while rewarding with treats. Some of the wonderful byproducts with your dog of this are trust, confidence and happiness! Experiment with different treats and learn your dog’s preferences. Remember it is your dog that gets to decide what is reinforcing. If he lacks lustre about the treats you are using consider upping your game and see for yourself the effect this has on your training effectiveness! Use a treat pouch and keep it well stocked, have treats stashed around your house ready to grab for that impromptu training moment. Don’t leave home without them!

A tip if you feed dry food to your puppy. Measure out the food and place in a plastic bag with a zip closure. Add a titch of broth or grated cheese, add some pulverized dried liver dust and some bits of cooked fresh meat. Shake it up and let it sit. Use this food over the course of the day for games, training and work-to-eat toys.

If need be you can adjust your puppy’s food to compensate for the number of treats he is getting. Most pups do great with their daily food ration and lots of high quality, high-value reinforcement. Growing pups need a lot of calories.

Remember, use very tiny pieces.

Learning Plateaus

When a certain amount of behavior or information has been learned, there will often be a resistance to learning new things until the initial behavior or information becomes fully absorbed and adopted. This is true of humans as well as puppies. It is not clearly understood what boosts the next stage of learning. This is an important phenomenon that you should be aware of when training and its your persistence and patience that will prevail.

Often when a pup is slightly stressed or overwhelmed he will exhibit this behavior.

Displacement Behaviours

During training sessions with your puppy you may observe him yawning or scratching as though he has an itch. Many times what we are observing is called displacement behavior. Often when a pup is slightly stressed or overwhelmed he will exhibit this behavior. If you are working on teaching your puppy something and you see him doing this, he is probably trying to digest what is being taught and it also may be a little stressful for him. To relieve some of the tension that he feels, he yawns and scratches.


At any point during the training process, if things begin to deteriorate, backtrack and set your puppy up to succeed. In other words, do something you know your dog is capable of, or take a break!

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