While it may be romantic to think that dogs have an innate predisposition for pleasing their masters, truth is, dogs as opportunistic beings, are more eager to please themselves. Indeed, according to the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, every time dog owners ask their dog to do something, the dog is most likely thinking “What’s in it for me?” If there is not much offered, the dog may decide it can live without performing any special tasks and will have little or no enthusiasm for training.
Because the fastest way to a dog’s heart is through its stomach, food in most cases is what makes him eager to work. After all, this trend is not unique to dogs. As humans, most of us work for a paycheck or some other form of compensation. Bonuses, pay raises, benefits and additional perks make working even more worthy. While petting the dog and praising may make a dog happy, the truth is, treats will always hold a special place in his heart. Food is the dog’s equivalent of our currency.
Benefits of Training Dogs With Treats
It is scientifically proven that behaviors that are rewarded will be repeated. Edward Thorndike, a famous psychologist specializing in animal behavior and learning processes coined the “Law of Effect” which outlines that learning is strengthened when accompanied by a pleasant or satisfying feeling, whereas learning is weakened when accompanied by an unpleasant feeling. This explains why dogs trained with positive reinforcement learn faster and with much more enthusiasm than dogs trained using aversion.
Debunking Some Common Myths
Many dog owners are intimidated by reward-based training methods because they fear their dogs will only work if there is food in sight. This is a common myth, but it is somewhat founded. If food is used as a bribe, the dog indeed will only work for food. It is therefore very important not to misuse food. While showing food is effective in the early stages of learning, it must be faded quickly. If you are training your dog to sit or lie down using a treat as a lure, once the dog successfully performs the behavior it must be your top priority to get the food out of the visual picture as soon as possible. This means getting the treat or cookie out from a pocket or treat bag only after the dog performs the behavior.
Another common myth is the belief that reward-based training methods force dog owners to become treat dispensers for life. While treats are given on a frequent basis during the initial stages of training, as the dog progresses, they are given randomly. If the dog is told “good boy” before a treat is delivered, with time, verbal praise will become a reward on its own. Treats are not the only rewards in the dog world; at some point, you can also try using life rewards. Ask your dog a command and then reward him immediately by tossing a favorite toy, taking him out in the yard or putting the food bowl down.
Important Tips to Consider
Training a dog with treats is not as simple as getting a handful of treats and having the dog magically perform some of the most challenging tricks. Training takes time and there are important considerations to keep in mind.
- Use soft pea-sized treats. These are fast to deliver and are enough to tell your dog he has done a good job without over-filling him.
- Find what motivates your dog. While normal treats may work in areas where there are not many distractions, make sure you use high-value treats for distracting environments.
- Timing is essential. Praise your dog the moment he performs the wanted behavior to mark it and then deliver the treat immediately.
- Avoid bribing; if your dog does not comply don’t readily grab a treat to make him comply.
- When your dog delivers an outstanding performance, don’t be shy to deliver a jackpot. Jackpots are a handful of treats delivered all at once.
- Remember to always mark wanted behaviors with praise followed by a treat. When you will need to fade treats, the praise will be rewarding on its own.
- Be a splitter and not a lumper. Try to train your dog by splitting exercises into baby steps rather than asking for the exercise all at once, with the risk of putting your dog up for failure.
- Always end your training session on a positive note. Ask your dog a simple command he knows well and then praises and reward it. Next time, your dog will be more enthusiastic about his next training session.
- Remember to cut back a bit on the food you give when you are using treats for training. When training indoors, you can place a part of your dog’s daily ration of kibble and mix it with a few hot dogs. After a few hours, the kibble will have absorbed some of the hot dog smell making it more appealing.
Treats, when used correctly, are a great addition to a reward-based training program. However, positive training does not mean permissive. Remember to still enforce rules and boundaries for your dog to respect.