There are many ways to reward your dog for a job well done. Throwing a tennis ball might be great at the end of a long “stay,” or a romp in the backyard after practicing “wait” by the door. But food treats are often the most convenient and effective way to influence your dog’s behavior. Here are some tips for choosing the right treat for the right situation.
When you’re teaching your dog new behaviors, it’s important to keep him motivated and interested. One of the easiest ways to do that is with a high rate of reinforcement (how often you give rewards). In order to give your dog lots of treats in a short period of time, you need to choose ones he can eat quickly.
If your dog gobbles his treat immediately, you can move to the next repetition right away. He stays interested and gets lots of practice in a short amount of time. But if your dog spends several seconds eating each treat, that means more time waiting between repetitions. You will either have to increase the length of your training session and risk having your dog lose focus or practice fewer repetitions per session.
Keep Treats Small
Small treats are key to keeping a training session moving along. Even for large dogs, a pea-sized treat is plenty. For small dogs, you can use even tinier pieces. Some commercial treats are far too large. Look for tiny treats or cut larger ones into small bits before your training session begins. You might feel like you’re cheating your dog, but as long as he’s getting something he loves, he won’t care if it’s just a tidbit or the whole wiener.
The smaller treats are also kinder to your dog’s waistline. Particularly when training is intense, like with puppies or dogs training for specific sports, your pup might be eating handfuls of treats each day. Keeping treats small means fewer calories consumed. It also means your canine companion won’t get full before the session is over.
Soft and Stinky Treats
Soft treats are also great for training because, compared to crunchy ones, they’re easier and faster for your dog to eat. Biscuits can be fine for one-off rewards, but during a training session, waiting for your dog to find every piece that’s crumbled to the floor is time away from teaching.
Soft treats are also smellier. Every dog has a hierarchy of rewards, and most of them would put smelly items like cheese or bacon up at the top. You might be able to get away with using kibble as a reward in your quiet living room, but in a more distracting location, you should pull out the stinky treats your dog adores.
Changing It Up
Just as your dog likes certain treats more than others, he might also like a variety. Dogs can become bored with the same old treat. If you notice your dog’s enthusiasm is fading, change to a different reward of equal or greater value. You can even use several different treats during a session, so your dog never knows what type of delicious morsel is coming next.
A Pocket Full of Food
Sometimes you want treats on hand for impromptu training — for example, reinforcing good behavior around the house, like lying quietly on a dog bed. In these cases, having food in your pocket or a treat bag at all times will allow you to provide an immediate reward. Perishable treats like leftover chicken simply won’t work. Look for nonperishable treats that you can carry around, such as freeze-dried liver or jerky cut into tiny pieces.
Sometimes treats should last as long as possible. Teaching your dog to love his crate, helping him pass the time while you’re out of the house, or encouraging him to lie quietly beside you while you watch TV are all perfect situations for a long-lasting treat. Look for chewy treats like bully sticks that your dog can savor. Alternatively, use toys you can stuff with food. A Kong can be filled with cream cheese or peanut butter for a time-consuming treat. Or plug the end, fill it with broth, and put it in the freezer for a snack on a hot day.