The Truth About Treats: Why Do We Use Them In Training?

The Truth About Treats: Why Do We Use Them In Training?

Today, I want to talk about a topic that seems to provoke a fair amount of consternation among students in my beginner obedience class.  Namely, this:

Why do we have to use treats?

This is a reasonable, and very common question – and so, I will do my best to shed some light on this subject in our discussion today.  If you’ve ever wondered this yourself, or asked your obedience instructor why you need to bring a baggie full of hot dogs or string cheese to class each week, today’s post is for you!

So, let’s start with the basics.

To be fair, we don’t *have* to use treats… there are certainly other options, as we’ll discuss a bit more in a moment.  But, we often choose to use food rewards in training as our default “go-to” option because they have some significant advantages.

First of all – treats are convenient, and quite user-friendly.  Easy to carry in a bag or pocket, and can be used in a very precise way to reward the exact behavior we want at just the right time.  I really can’t overstate how important this is, if you want your dog to understand what you’re teaching!

To explain:

If you’re teaching a sit, it’s relatively simple to pop a bite of beef jerky into your dog’s mouth at the instant his rear end touches the floor.  Easy-peasy, right?  Rear end on the floor = tasty treat!  This is how dogs learn.  It’s much more difficult to time your reward correctly with something like petting, or play… which translates to confusion on your dog’s part, and a slower learning process.

Secondly – we use them because they work!  All animals (including humans) need to eat, and the biological drive for food is a powerful one.  Simply put, eating something tasty makes us feel good.  The tastier the food, the more we enjoy it… which is why most of us would work harder for chocolate cake than for Brussels sprouts.  Training treats allow us to use this unalterable fact of life to our advantage.

So what does this mean, in practical terms?

It means that for the vast majority of pet dogs, high-value food rewards are a very effective motivator.  This is vital for any kind of training success!  If you don’t have anything to offer that your dog really wants, you won’t be able to teach her anything.  Most dogs want hot dog slices or bites of roast beef very much, which makes them an excellent choice for this purpose.

Of course, this begs the question… is it possible to build drive and motivation for other types of rewards?  Yes, absolutely!  In fact, this is very common in dog sports such as agility and protection work, where toy play may be preferred over food as a reward for certain skills.  But it takes some extra time and effort to teach your dog the appropriate play behaviors and build value for them, and quite a bit more skill on the part of the handler to use these rewards effectively.

So if you progress to more advanced obedience training with your dog, or branch out into a sport that requires speed and lots of energy, you may eventually incorporate some non-food rewards into your training toolbox.  But for a beginner dog and novice owner, working on basic skills in your first obedience class, your life will be much easier if you stick to tasty treats.  Get the easy stuff down first, then work your way up if you want to do more!

But wait, you might say.  I want my dog to listen because she loves me.  Can’t I just use praise and petting as a reward?

Well… no, not really.  Honestly, I promise – it’s not the same thing.

Truthfully, I find that many novice dog owners dramatically over-estimate how much their dogs value praise and petting.  For most dogs, these things are nice… but certainly not worth going out of their way for, and in some cases may actually be annoying to them if they were busily engaged in some other activity.

Case in point:  your dog will not appreciate being called away from chasing a rabbit or rolling in something deliciously dead and smelly, in return for a hearty “Good girl!” and a scratch on the head.  This is a bit like your boss asking you to take a busy overtime shift when you’re already exhausted, and proudly presenting you with a pat on the back (and no bonus or extra pay!) as thanks.  Odds are, you won’t be so quick to say yes next time… and neither will your dog.

What if your dog is a 5-year-old Golden Retriever who truly does love snuggles and ear scratches more than anything in the world?  Even then, it’s difficult to use petting as an effective training reward, especially in the early stages when she’s still learning a new behavior.  It’s hard to be as precise with a belly rub as with a well-placed hot dog slice, which really muddies the waters for your dog if she doesn’t know exactly what you want.

In addition, most of us pet our dogs all the time – it’s part of why we have them!  There’s nothing wrong with this at all, but it does have the effect of making petting much less valuable as a training reward.  Why perform a complicated obedience routine for a scratch on the chest, when you can just walk up to Mom and get one for free anytime the mood strikes?

In my experience, the dogs I see who work “just for praise and petting” are actually working to avoid some type of punishment – a leash pop, a zap from a shock collar, or even a verbal correction.  Whether these can be valid training choices in some cases is a thorny topic for another day… but if you do choose to train this way, you should do it with your eyes wide open as to how these techniques actually work.

Finally, what about dogs who simply aren’t very food-motivated?  They do exist, and they can be a real challenge to work with – just ask any owner who has had one!

My preference, if possible, is to get creative and find *something* the dog likes to eat… even if it’s a bit unconventional.  I have worked with picky dogs using everything from “Nilla Wafer” cookies, to Chic-Fil-A chicken nuggets, to fishy-smelling canned cat food.  Every dog gets to choose what she finds rewarding enough to work for – it just may take some detective work on your part to figure out what she likes!

Skipping a meal just prior to your training session can also be helpful for picky eaters – you can always feed them dinner afterwards if needed.  Going for a long walk or playing a game of fetch before training class can also help to work up an appetite, for some dogs.

It’s well worth doing some trial and error to figure out what your pup needs to succeed.  The formula will look a bit different for every dog… but chances are, some type of training treat will be vital to the process.

So don’t hold back – dig into the cookie jar, and dole out the good stuff for a job well done. 🙂

21 thoughts on “The Truth About Treats: Why Do We Use Them In Training?

  1. #truth
    I have been clicker training my 14 month old Standard Poodle (for about 6 months)and have had amazing results! I have had 3 dogs before this and by far these are best results I have had! AND she loves training!

    1. Clicker training is such fun, isn’t it?? There’s nothing quite like watching your dog figure something out, and proudly offer it! My dogs are always pestering me to get out the training bag, and they never want to quit – I often wish I enjoyed “school” as much as they do, lol.

  2. Thanks so much for this. I tell all my students rewards have a value to them. A great piece of chicken no matter how small will do wonders compared to a “good dog” given in a wrong tone or wrong time or a pet done in such a way the dog thinks it has done something wrong – not right. I get some folks who will say they were told they were bribing their dog by another trainer– my comment usually is– so you work for free? Thanks again.

  3. Absolutely love your comments. Right on target and given in a way that helps those without a background in dog training understand the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of everything.

    1. I try very hard to make my articles accessible for beginner dog owners – not everyone knows the fancy terminology, or wants to! I’m glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

  4. Great Article 🙂

    I am always looking for simple ways to explain different concepts of training to my clients “In Easy To Understand Terms”

    I get a lot from reading your articles and this one, like all of them is excellent.

    Are you happy for me to share ?

    Short video of my 2 1/2 year Kelpie Shanti, doing a fun little routine of the office of the Pet food wholesalers She Loves Play as a Reward but FOOD rocks her boat too
    https://www.facebook.com/K9-Care-Obedience-Training-380929761992023/

    Best Wishes Nikhil K9 Care Obedience Training

    1. Certainly, feel free to share! I’m glad you enjoyed the article.
      Kelpies are such smart dogs – lots of personality! 🙂

  5. Very well said. I agree with everything you said. I am a huge fan of using food in the beginning stages of training and then introducing random rewards and then going back when introducing something new like a new environment to the older trick or new distractions. Then randomizing the treats again in that area. Literally going back and forth between something new and a new area. This is how Obedience is taught and practicing for competition. New trick and then new location. New trick and new location. Over and over until the whole pattern is taught with random treats and a jackpot at the end! My dog knows that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches come after all Obedience rings and treats are randomized before and during for a practice.

    “But wait, you might say. I want my dog to listen because she loves me. Can’t I just use praise and petting as a reward?”
    This is the Disney approach to having dogs. Everyone things that the dog loves them and then shouldn’t they be doing it? Unfortunately, many advertisers promote this and dog people want to believe it, even though it is so far from true.

    1. Ah, yes… the Disney approach is so much more appealing, isn’t it? Much less work, and an ego boost for us to boot.

      I do think the realization that they will actually need to use some type of motivator to train their dog is a bitter pill to swallow for many new owners. But once you make that mental leap and break out the hot dog slices, everything becomes much easier! 😉

      1. Agreed! I always figured it was my job to make my dogs happy and to protect them and not vice versa. I have a Rottweiler who is super toy motivated, but also loves food, of course. I know I can alternate between both back and forth to keep her attention and train her for a variety of sports and activities. So far, so good!

  6. It’s easy to forget, even become complacent,when your puppy gets a bit older (mine is now 7 months old) and think that they “should know by now” and to tail off the focused training and the treats. Small wonder pup’s performance and motivation tails off too! I love clicker training too – my first time – but have a question: what if pup doesn’t seem to actually want to take the treat if distracted?
    Like another reader, I love your blogs and your whole approach.

    1. It is easy to start assuming that your dog “knows what to do”, and get lax about your reward schedule. As you pointed out, there are a couple of problems with this! Frequently, our dogs don’t actually know what we want as well as we assume. And of course, even if they have a solidly learned behavior, they need some motivation to continue performing it time and again when we ask. 🙂

      To answer your question – I suppose I would first want to know more about why your pup isn’t taking the treat. Is it because she doesn’t find it all that motivating, especially in a more distracting environment? In that case, I would use a higher value treat… roast beef instead of dry kibble, for example.

      If she’s truly too distracted (or overwhelmed, or worried) by things going on around her, then I would try to change something about the environment so that she could be successful – this might mean walking further away from whatever is distracting her, or leaving the environment entirely and trying again later on if needed. I hope that helps a bit!

      1. That makes perfect sense. I don’t know if I’m alone with this difficulty: my 7 month old has become very slow to execute requests to sit or down. (5-10 seconds often.). I still praise her when she does eventually comply but don’t know how to help her and what to do to get a prompt response? I have learnt not to get annoyed as that is counter-productive and merely stresses her.

    1. For a dog with megaesophagus, I would be inclined to try something like canned food, chicken or beef baby food, or Cheez-Wiz in a squeeze tube – this way, you can give her a quick lick of the food as a reward when needed, rather than using solid treats. A Lickety Stik treat could also work well – this is a commercial product that dispenses flavored liquid using a rollerball that the dog licks.

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