How to use treats to train your dog

I love Halloween.  More specifically, I love the treats.  A personal favorite is Snickers bars.  As kids, we knew which houses gave them out one year and that was a house we were not going to miss the following year – a learned behavior.  I’ll bet your dog likes treats, and that’s what makes them a valuable training tool.

Using treats for training

I see giving treats to my dogs as a “tip” for doing a good job, just like I would tip a server.  I use this logic with my training clients as well.  In the beginning of training anything new to your dog, using treats will mark the behavior you are trying to get.  For example, if I am teaching little Pumpkin to “watch me,” as soon as those pretty puppy eyes focus on me and not the treat, he gets the reward – or “tip.”  Patience, practice and timing are key.  In the beginning, the dog is only guessing at what the words “watch me” mean, but as you take the treat and direct it up to your eyes, his eyes will follow the treat.  As soon as he looks away and into your eyes – treat.  The more times he gets rewarded for looking at your eyes when you say the words instead of the treat, the more tips he gets. When you are sure he has mastered the concept, you can begin to massage the behavior.

Treats and “tricks”

This is where the “trick” comes into play.  Much to Pumpkin’s dismay, there will be times that you don’t have a pocketful of treats with you.  You can begin to substitute treats for other things that your dog recognizes as a reward for a job well done.  Some things that come to mind are a stroke down the back, a “good boy” or playtime with a favorite toy.  By practicing the behavior with and without treats, Pumpkin never really knows when he gets the non-goody reward, or the jackpot of a treat and will continue to give you the behavior you want – much like we always visited the houses with Snickers, but still visited the other houses – just in case.  I don’t ever phase out treats.  That’s just my personal preference.  I dole them out sparingly once the dog grasps the behavior.

Using a hierarchy of treats

I also have a hierarchy of treats I use depending on the circumstance.  If I am training a dog in his living room and ask for a “watch me,” I can usually use less valued treats than if I am competing with other distractions.  For example, if I am working in the front yard and have to compete with traffic, squirrels and other distractions, a boring biscuit may not be enough to keep the focus I need.  I can then use a higher value reward such as hot dog pieces, carrots or dried sweet potato.  If I am working with lots of distractions such as goblins playing next door, another dog next door barking, black cats, I can up the ante to something really irresistible such as cooked chicken or cheese.  Don’t be afraid to challenge your dog once the behavior is learned.  You can ask for a “watch me” from across the room, or ask to keep eye contact for a longer length of time.  Using treats is a very helpful way to teach new things to your dog.  They just make it more enjoyable for you and your dog, but you can and should wean them back – not necessarily a trick after all.

Terry Meeks is a dog trainer, APDT Member an CGC Evaluator in Pinellas County, Florida.  Find Four on the Floor Dog Training at and on Facebook.

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