Why and How Should I Use Treats for Training?

Using treats to train your dog is something I feel some people don’t fully understand. It’s a little more complicated than giving your dog a cookie for being good. It’s actually a skill that can take practice. Yes, it is possible to be bad at rewarding your dog. Timing and treat delivery are key. 

Some folks even argue against using treats. They say it’s just bribery, it’ll make your dog fat, they want their dog to work for them, not the food, etc. 

The bribery argument brings us back to that whole “it’s a skill that can take practice” thing. If you suck at how you reward your dog, the treat absolutely can become a bribe. If you find you’re having to show the treat before your dog will comply, your dog is probably thinking, “Hm, there appears to be no treat in it for me, so why bother?” as they walk off in bored indignation. Alternatively, it could be that you’ve accidentally made the presentation of the treat part of the cue. Your dog hasn’t quite learned that saying “sit” means he should sit, but that saying “sit” and holding up a treat means he should sit. Dogs are very visual communicators and body language is what they know best.

The treat should be more of a surprise. They should have no idea if their behavior will earn a treat until after they perform it. I frequently made the mistake most people make where I would stick my hand in my bait bag, ready to grab a treat, when asking for a behavior. That visual signal became part of the cue to perform the behavior, and the dog tended to focus more on that than the verbal cue. 

I hate the “using treats will make your dog fat” argument because that tells me that person may not be so good in the critical thinking department. It’s a pretty easy issue to solve. If your dog will work for kibble, use his meals for training sessions. Make him work for it. That way he gets no more than his usual meal and some great mental stimulation to wear him out.

If you’re using treats for training outside of meals, cut down the size of his meals. If you’re going to a training class at 9:00AM where you know your dog will (ideally) be receiving lots of treats for his hard work, maybe skip breakfast or give him only a small portion of it. Or see if your dog will work for healthy food like bits of carrot or broccoli. You could even up your dog’s exercise if needed.

I totally get the argument that people want their dog to want to work for them and not the food. Some dogs will gladly work for praise, but some might think, “That’s all I get? You’re an idiot.” Just like every person is different, every dog is different. It’s unfair to expect a dog to work for something he doesn’t find very valuable. How likely are you to want to come to work if your weekly paycheck is $200 instead of $500? Good bosses know how to motivate their employees and make working with them an enjoyable experience. The same goes for good dog trainers.

Put simply, pairing treats with an experience makes the dog feel good about that experience, it makes the dog want to work with you because it’s fun. It actually affects brain chemistry and produces those feel-good hormones (just like harsh punishment can produce those feel-bad hormones). 

I’ll use my experience with shopping malls as an example (humans and dogs learn by the same principles, after all). I grew up half an hour from the nearest city. We didn’t go there too often. I remember being really excited when we would go because we would get to go to ~*~* THE MALL*~*~. The mall was always so fun to me because there was so much cool stuff! Even if I didn’t get to buy anything, it was fun to go and see everything. As an adult, malls are way less exciting to me (especially due to my pitiful bank account balance), but I still get that initial gut reaction of ‘WHEE!” every time I pass one. Those fun experiences and the positive associations that were made ingrained the “malls are fun” feeling into me.

The same can be done with a less interesting place like the DMV. If you have a good experience every time you go there, you’ll find yourself reflexively lighting up anytime someone mentions the DMV. Alternatively, if you go to an amusement park (a place that is normally supposed to be a lot of fun) and have a particularly bad experience, chances are anytime someone mentions that park you’ll have a negative visceral reaction.

While this post focuses on treats, it should go without saying that you can use a variety of things to motivate and reward your dog – toys, play, access to outside, permission to go greet another dog, etc.

I use treats because they’re easy, they yield solid results, and they help build the relationship between me and my dog. It does more than you’d think to teach your dog that working with you is fun. This was a bit of a simplified overview, but it’s still a bit of a rambling mess. If I had explored all the details, variables, and potential explanations, well… you probably would have just hit that red X up in the corner by now.

Seriously, am I getting paid for this? (Photo by Bethany Billick)