Should I use treats to train my dog? As a professional dog trainer, I hear this question a lot, and the answer is easy: Yes! Definitely! Absolutely! Training with treats is a great way to teach your dog proper behavior. Here’s why.

  • Powerful motivation. Your dog loves treats, right? What dog doesn’t? So she naturally will want to do whatever it takes to get more of them. Even if your dog is a picky eater she’s still motivated by food – otherwise she’d starve! It may just take some work on your part to find a yummy that can compete with the world around her.
  • Instant feedback. Dogs learn by cause and effect. With good timing on your part, a treat provides your dog immediate reinforcement for desired behaviors, making it clear to him exactly what he did to earn a reward.
  • Lots of easy repetition. Learning new skills takes practice, practice and more practice. Have you ever tried to learn a new language or dance step? Using treats allows you to quickly reward your dog for the correct behavior and repeat, repeat, repeat. Imagine how long it would take to practice a new trick like ‘shake’ if you threw her tennis ball as a reward each time she got it right.
  • Positive reinforcement. Most important of all, training with treats is a positive way to train your dog without the need for harsh corrections, which also helps strengthen the loving relationship & trust we enjoy with our pets.

Basic how-to’s

Training with treats is really very simple. First, identify behaviors you want to encourage. For example: be quiet, sit, lie down, come, get off, stay, heel.

Now arm yourself with tasty treats so you’re ready at all times to reward those desired behaviors. Whenever you say, “Fido, come!” and he comes, give him a treat.

Do this every time you want him to come to you, and he’ll quickly learn that responding when you call earns him a yummy treat. Be sure to start where it is easy for your dog to succeed. It’s not enough to just do repetitions, they need to be successful repetitions! Training is a game and your dog needs to be able to win in order to keep him (and you!) engaged.

Over time, reduce the frequency of treats, but continue to reward him in other ways for listening to you. Keep the game fun and interesting – sometimes he earns a treat, sometimes a ball toss, sometimes a belly rub.

Timing is Key

When pet owners tell me training with treats hasn’t worked for them, one of the reasons is their timing is off. Dogs live in the moment. When  treats come too late after a desired behavior, dogs have already moved on to whatever they’re doing RIGHT NOW. So they don’t understand exactly what they did to earn a reward.

They may even associate your praise and treats with some other not-so-desirable behavior you’d rather not see them repeat. For instance, if your dog sits when you ask her too, then you slowly fumble in your pocket for a treat, then she jumps up on you while you are giving her the treat, what exactly are you rewarding? The jumping up on you, of course! So be precise with your timing. Treat that “good dog” immediately as she earns your approval. In this case, the instant her rear end hits the ground.

Be a Slot Machine

The other main reasons pet owners tell me they don’t like training with treats is their dog will only do the behavior when they have treats in their hands. This happens because they abruptly quit using treats before their dog has really learned the behavior and they haven’t taught their dog that payoffs (treats) happen even when they don’t have a hand full of cookies.

You need to gradually and randomly cut back on how often you give treats in exchange for obedient behavior once it is learned.

Think about it this way. While your dog is learning a new behavior, you’ve been paying off with a treat every time they respond to your word – in other words, you’ve been a slot machine that always wins! Now all of a sudden, you decide to it’s time to stop using treats. You’ve just become a broken slot machine and who wants to play one of those?

Your dog quickly learns that when you have a pocketful of treats they can win by doing what you ask. But when you don’t have that pocketful of treats it never pays to play the game – and so they don’t.

So mix it up. Have a treat they can’t smell, such as a sealed jar of baby food, that you can whip out at the right time and surprise them. Or stash treats (high up) around the house so they are always within reach but not in your hands or pocket. Or have a pocketful of treats, but don’t reward every time. Be a slot machine!

Treats can be a great incentive and reward for dogs learning to live by human rules. Just remember the keys are motivation, repetition, timing and random rewards. Start training with treats today, and let us know how it goes!