Training your Labrador puppy can be a daunting task and one that all dog owners can empathize with. Often boisterous, occasionally nervous and initially confused, dog training requires you to have your wits about you, together with knowledge and some useful tools in your arsenal.
Dog treats are one such tool.
Incredibly useful to use during training as a reward to work for and to keep your dog or puppy concentrated on you and the learning process, whatever age they are.
You have to bear in mind that dogs aren’t naturally programmed to respond quickly and accurately to commands. It’s up to you, as their owner, to put in the time and effort to train them properly, to teach them to WANT to respond. Treats are a useful tool in this process.
Now, some owners are nervous about using treats during training, worrying their dog will become obsessed with the treats and refuse to obey commands without them. But fear not!
In this article you will learn how to use dog treats properly during training; How to avoid bribery, any unwanted weight gain, how to get started with them and many more top tips on how to use training treats correctly and to your best advantage.
Contents & Quick Navigation
- Why Use Food Rewards During Training?
- The Key to Food Rewards is Reinforcement – NOT Bribery
- Characteristics of Good Training Treats
- How To Use Treats In Your Dog Training
- Randomly Treat With Food During Maintenance Training
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Why Use Food Rewards During Training?
Despite what we like to believe, dogs don’t actually do the things we ask just to make us happy. That isn’t enough of a reward for most dogs. In reality, they do what works for and benefits themselves.
If a dog performs a behavior that leads to good things, they’re more likely to repeat it. If it doesn’t lead to good things, they’re less likely to repeat it. It’s that simple.
So if you want your dog to regularly and reliably work for you, to follow your cues and commands, you have to make it rewarding for them to do so. But what rewards can you offer?
Some dogs will work for praise – if they find it rewarding enough. Others will work for play – if they find it rewarding enough. Almost all dogs however will work food.
Food taps into a primal need and instinctive desire. So food is possibly the best reward to give to your dog for a job well done (though you should always mix in praise and play too!)
The Key to Food Rewards is Reinforcement – NOT Bribery
The most important thing to bear in mind is you must only use treats as a reinforcement tool– they mustn’t be used as bribes.
Reinforcement is basically ‘payment for a job well done’. They have done a good job of following your commands, and AFTER they have done a good job you reward them. This is a reinforcement.
Bribery is basically offering something for your dog to work for after they’ve knowingly refused to perform a behavior. They said no, so you offer them something BEFORE and only THEN do they follow your command. This is a bribe.
Reinforcement will make sure your pup is trained effectively and maintains their good behavior in the long-term, while bribery guarantees nothing but short-term gains.
How to Recognize Bribery – So You Can Avoid It
Let’s have a look at a hypothetical situation:
You’ve been training your dog on the ‘sit’ command for the past few days using treats, and they’ve responded well.
They have proven they know the ‘sit’ command and what’s expected when you give the cue.
So you decide that now is the time to try the command without the treat.
You say ‘sit’ – they do nothing. You say ‘sit’ again – they still do nothing, except maybe give you a look of mild expectation.
You draw the treat out of your pocket – bingo! They sit. This is bribery and you have to avoid it. If you do not, you could create a dog that will only follow your commands when bribed with food. This makes the training useless as they will not follow your cues otherwise.
Avoiding Bribery in Practice
So now you know what bribery is, let’s talk about how to avoid falling into its trap.
The trick is to almost always keep treats hidden, only showing them AFTER they have successfully completed a behavior, and not before.
If you do use a treat to lure them into a behavior (a fine and effective technique), then you must as soon as possible remove the treat from the process (and your dog’s line of vision.)
Once they understand a gesture, a command and can perform the behavior, simply use a closed hand, same movement and gesture but with the treats safely tucked away in your pouch or pocket – this will help them disassociate the treats from the command and their response.
Treats are great tools for the beginning stages of training but you shouldn’t be relying on them for too long. It will inevitably vary from dog-to-dog in terms of when exactly is the best time to stop treat rewards but Quick and Dirty Tips have a great rule of thumb:
“When your dog responds to a given cue at least 90 percent of the time in different contexts, you can start making your food rewards random and less frequent.“
APDT recommend continuing to use the same gestures and the same tone of voice for your commands as you’ve been using so far to maintain continuity for your pup. And this makes perfect sense for all training.
We’ll talk about how best to maintain your dog’s training a little later.
Characteristics of Good Training Treats
When it comes to the perfect training treats there are certain guidelines you want to follow.
Small and Easily Eaten
For training purposes, you want the treats to be small and easily swallowed, needing little chewing so you can reward with the mantra ‘quickly, little and often’.
A big slab of rawhide will NOT be conducive to effective training! With big pieces, your dog has to stop, chew and take time to eat it so the pause in training is too long and they lose concentration.
Perfect treats are relatively soft and about the size of a pea. Dogs aren’t too concerned about the size of the treat, they’re more impressed by the number they get.
Tasty to YOUR Dog
If your dog doesn’t like the treat, they will not feel rewarded and won’t feel motivated. But not all dogs like all foods. Therefore you should try different treats until you find some that work, until you find 2 or 3 foods that your dog gets truly excited about.
Commercial treats are very effective because they’re designed to be very tasty. However, just because something doesn’t say ‘training treats’ on the packaging doesn’t mean it’s not suitable.
Some dogs may prefer a piece of fruit, of vegetable, or a peanut butter biscuit instead of a piece of meat or hotdog. Strange but true! So don’t be afraid to experiment.
A Mix of High and Low Value
You want a mix of high and low value dog treats so you can vary the reward and if necessary or warranted, have ‘a little something extra to give‘ if your lab is losing motivation or does an exceptionally good job.
When training in the familiar, quiet and comparatively unexciting surroundings of your home, a piece of dry kibble may be enough to have your dog work for you.
But when training down the local dog park with all the sights, sounds and smells of the outside world, suddenly that piece of kibble isn’t so interesting and may not motivate your dog to concentrate on you. You need special high value treats. A piece of dried liver or bacon will almost certainly do the trick!
Homemade Vs Store Bought Treats
There is much debate about the merits of homemade treats versus ones you can buy in the pet store. Let’s take a look at the key differences.
Store Bought Treats
They are highly convenient with no preparation, cooking or cleaning to do on your part. They have a long shelf life and already come in perfectly sized chunks.
However, many of the cheapest commercial treats have low-value and quite honestly bad ingredients. So be picky and buy quality, natural, healthy treats only.
Look for ingredients such as chicken, liver, other meats, maybe egg, while avoiding things such as corn, wheat, ’empty fillers’ and any ingredients that you aren’t familiar with or cannot pronounce.
We recommend Zuke’s Mini Naturals.
They are more economical and potentially healthier as they contain only ingredients that you control, but they take time to prepare and involve cooking and cleaning.
If creating home-made training treats, keep in mind any dietary restrictions your dog may have.
Aim for items such as small pieces of ham, chicken, little squares of cheese, pieces of hot dog sausage or bake up biscuits from one of the many available recipes you can find on the web. These may be just the tonic.
You can also use pieces of fruit or vegetable.
Make sure to stay away from anything cooked with salt, herbs or spices – in fact, it’s safer to stay away from anything that isn’t a raw ingredient, unless it’s a recipe you’ve followed specifically for dog treats.
So Which is Best – Store Bought or Homemade?
There’s no right answer here – it’s up to you to find out what works best for you, your dog and their taste buds.
Some people report their dogs prefer home-made treats, while others say their dogs go mad for those commercially available.
Remember that treats work so well as a training tool only because most dogs absolutely love food – And we all know a few Labs whose worlds positively revolve around their next meal!
So it won’t be hard to find something that will excite yours and will motivate them to work with you. So…
Experimentation is key. Don’t be afraid to try a few different brands, and it’s perfectly acceptable to branch away from shop bought treats to homemade treats.
Not all dogs love the same foods and if they don’t like the rewards, they will not do the work when training.
Some dogs – not many – will turn their nose up to traditional treats. Then maybe your larder holds the secret to what will most excite your dog? There’s only one way to find out, and that’s trial and error.
But in my experience, store-bought treats are the best. They are specially made to be incredibly tasty and motivating, they are hassle free (just open the packet), come in perfectly sized chunks, avoid the mess of prep and cooking and nearly all dogs love them.
You can see a list of 5 fantastic, healthy dog treats we’re happy to recommend in our review of the best dog treats for training.
How To Use Treats In Your Dog Training
Once you’ve discovered a treat or two your dog gets excited about, it’s time to get down to the actual training.
We’ve talked about what not to do (bribery), now let’s focus on what we should be doing when using treats during dog training.
These next few tips should set you on the right path to using dog treats as an effective tool and is the most important information in this article.
Start Using Them With a New Puppy
Food treats are at their most effective during the initial stages of training a new puppy.
For their first few training sessions, before you and they have built up confidence in the training process and a working relationship, other forms of reward such as praise, play or a walk just aren’t ‘real enough’. They aren’t a clear enough incentive to work for as it isn’t something a puppy can see.
However, food is a physical thing with some substance so it’s far more clear to a puppy what they are working for and they will be far more motivated to work with you. A classic example of this is ‘lure and reward’ training.
A Perfect Example Use-Case: Lure and Reward
Probably the most effective use of treats during training is the method of ‘lure and reward’: let’s have a look at an example of this method at work for a ‘down’ command.
- When your dog is in the sitting position, bring a treat down to their nose in your closed hand so they cannot eat it, but know it’s there.
- Pull the treat from their nose down toward the ground while giving the command: “down“
- Your dog will follow the treat to the floor with their snout.
- Once your hand has reached the floor and your dog’s snout with it, move your hand along the floor toward you and away from your dog.
- Your dog’s nose will follow the treat and they will automatically slide into the ‘down’ position.
- Now give the reward and an event marker – i.e. use a clicker, or say “yes” or “good boy“
You lured your dog into position by having them follow the treat, you then also rewarded them with the treat once they got into the correct position. Hence the technique is called ‘lure and reward.‘
As your dog becomes accustomed to the command and the response, you will be able to – and MUST – fade out first the lure, and then randomize how often they get the dog treat reward. Otherwise, you can easily fall into the ‘bribery trap.’ (We will cover how to phase out rewards shortly.)
Don’t Treat Too Much!
When learning a new command and behavior for the first time, it pays to reward your puppy or dog with a single food treat every single time they correctly perform the behavior.
However, you must be cautious about over-rewarding during training.
Not only will the treats lose some of their magical appeal to your canine companion if they get them every time, but you don’t want your pup to unknowingly pack on poundage through the extra food intake.
Hartz recommends that you don’t allow treats to make up more than 10 percent of your dog’s daily food intake and it’s a number I’ve seen around often so it’s reasonable advice to follow.
Phasing Out Food Rewards
Because you don’t want a dog who only follows your commands when you give them a treat, you cannot treat them for every good behavior.
However, when eventually it seems your dog has got the hang of their training, it doesn’t mean you should just stop all treats immediately. As Totally Dog Training asserts “all animals work harder for intermittent and unpredictable rewards”.
So once they show they’ve understood a command, you need to start phasing out rewards and begin using them only occasionally, randomizing the frequency.
Like with a baby who uses a pacifier, you need to wean them off slowly. You can be assured that if you don’t phase out treats properly, your pup’s training and behavior will deteriorate over time.
Essentially, you’re looking to reduce both the regularity of the treats, but also the ‘value’ of the treats too, in order to keep your dog interested in following commands and behaving correctly.
When we say reduce the ‘value’, let’s clarify with an example:
If you were originally rewarding your dog with a bit of fresh chicken every time (A high-value reward), switch to rewarding with just a small corner of ham (a lower value reward) or simply a piece of kibble (a very low value reward) and only on a handful of occasions instead of every time. Reduce frequency and value slowly over a few training sessions.
During the stage of phasing out food rewards, it becomes appropriate to throw in life rewards in place of dog treats. Rewards such as praise and petting.
When Should You Begin to Phase out Rewards?
There will come a time where your dog is responding to commands correctly 90 percent of the time – this is the point where you can begin to phase out the treats.
At this stage, they know the command, they’ve associated a behavior with it and have shown they know what to do. So slowly scale back on food rewards, add some life rewards and randomize when they get a dog treat.
Throwing ‘Life Rewards’ Into The Mix
A great replacement for treats is what APDT term as ‘life rewards’.
Petting and praise, going for a walk, giving a good scratch or a throw around with their favorite toy are all excellent life rewards.
Stimulating and healthy, life rewards will help keep your dog’s training maintained in the long-run without needing to resort excessively to food treats, and will avoid any chances of bribery becoming an issue.
Life rewards give our dog something to look forward to for working with you, while also strengthening the bond between you, more so than just food treats ever can.
For example, treat with a quick 10 second game of tug for a 3 command streak (sit, down, sit) and then with a training treat for a 4 command streak (sit, down, release, sit, give paw) and then maybe just praise and a quick fetch of a ball for a single sit. Mix it up, randomize.
Treat Your Dog While They’re Still in Position
A quick tip but one that’s often forgotten is to always offer the treat while your dog is still in position.
What I mean is, if rewarding a sit, only give the treat if they’re still sitting. If training a down, only give the treat while they’re still lying down.
The way to do this is to get down to your dogs level, offering the treat directly at their natural eye level. If you’re dangling the treat from human height, your dog will have to make moves to get to the treat, breaking the position you’re trying to train and they actually receive the treat while being in the wrong position.
If you forget and your dog delivers the correct response, but stretches back up from a sit or a down to retrieve a reward, use the treat to lure them back down and give the command again. Then give the reward once they are back into the position being trained.
Giving the treat while they are still in position makes it absolutely clear what the reward is for, no possible confusion of them thinking the reward is for the release.
Reduce Regular Meal Sizes To Avoid Weight Gain
Another important tip (for your dog’s health more than anything) is to reduce the portions served at their regular meal times, to take into consideration the fact they have eaten treats throughout training sessions in a day.
Don’t do this and your dog will slowly gain weight and excess pounds carried above the ideal are bad for your pooch’s health.
So please be mindful of how much they’ve eaten via treats and reduce their main meal portion size accordingly.
Randomly Treat With Food During Maintenance Training
Many owners mistakenly believe that once their dog has learned a command and they’ve gone through the training stage of proofing, that training is all wrapped up and done. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Because the things we teach our dogs aren’t natural behaviors but are instead a learned skill, if they aren’t ‘maintained’ they will simply be forgotten.
Successful following of a command learnt during a dogs early days will not stay for life unless it is continually practiced all of their life. This is maintenance. Small occasional refresher sessions, practicing commands you and your dog worked hard to master, so they stay polished and at the forefront of your dogs mind.
During maintenance training you should continue to use food rewards – as well as life rewards – to keep your pups motivation high.
Randomize both the frequency and value of the treats used, but don’t completely stop using them or your dogs interest to follow your cues will fade away if they believe there’s nothing in it for them!
Now you know how best to use treats during training, all that’s left is to source the right ones.
There are literally hundreds (maybe more) of different brands, flavors, textures and types available, but not all are healthy or could ever be recommended.
To help you we have picked 5 of the best, healthiest and tastiest treats made especially for training that your dog will go mad for, and reviewed them in the following article:
Click to read: The Best Dog Treats to Use for Training
Dog training treats are a powerful tool in a dog trainers arsenal, an easy, almost foolproof way to motivate our dogs to work with us, but they must be used wisely.
The overuse of treats can effectively lead to bribery, where a dog will only work if they know you have some treats. You must avoid this at all costs. Treats are for reinforcement AFTER good behavior, not as a bribe BEFORE they follow a command.
There are many special store-bought treats made specifically for training and for most people these are the best option and what we recommend. I don’t know about you, but my life’s just too busy to spend cooking dog treats.
However, you can experiment with pieces of meat or homemade dog treat recipes, to see what suits you and your dog. If you have the time and inclination, homemade dog treat recipes are some of the healthiest out there.
Regardless, whatever treats you decide to use, remember the all-important ‘phasing out’ stage. You can’t rely on them forever. Use ‘life rewards’ instead and reap the benefit of the stronger bond between you and your Labrador this will bring.
Good luck with your training – And keep it fun and enjoy it!
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