Choosing the Best Treats for Dog Training

In Lesson One of our Rewards series, discover how choosing the right treats and having a variety of treats can significantly impact your dog's training success. Learn the how to pick the best food rewards, the benefits of variety in reward types and timing, and how to transform food into engaging games.

Dog sitting for a treat

This is the first lesson in our Pup U series, Canine Rewards. In this lesson, we explore the importance of selecting the best food rewards, the benefits of variety in reward types and timing, and how to transform food into engaging games that enhance learning and behavior.

Choose The Best Food Rewards

The obvious option is to use “better” food. If you’ve been using pet store treats, maybe try plain, cooked chicken or tiny pieces of low-fat cheese. If you’ve been using dry biscuits, perhaps try some small, soft dog treats. Maybe fish or egg are a great option for your dog. Dogs have different preferences, and you can experiment to see what your dog likes best.

You can compare two options to make notes on your dog’s preferences. While some dogs seem to love everything, they still probably like a small piece of ground beef over a dry piece of cereal. This same dog probably would choose a pile of 20 treats over a tiny crumb.

There are a few possible ways to do preference tests. You can hold a different type of treat in each hand. Present both closed fists to your dog and let him sniff both hands. Stand up and remove your hands temporarily. Then offer both to your dog - see which one he goes for first. You could also try setting different treats on a plate and note the order he chooses to eat them.

A third option is to present a treat and observe what happens after he eats a treat. For example, is he looking around the room, or does he swallow the treat and look up at you eagerly? If a dog eats a treat and meanders away, that usually indicates he’s not very interested, and we should try other options.

Variety Can Help Learning

It’s easy to get in the habit of always using the same reward. However, there is some evidence that variation in the types or timing of rewards can impact learning and help dogs learn faster. This means using one treat for a few minutes and switching to another kind of reward.  

There are options even for dogs with severe food restrictions/allergies. We can sometimes use the dog’s dry food, the prescription canned food, or put some dry food in a little warm water to bring out the smell and change the texture slightly. That gives us at least three starting points!

Turn Food Into Games

We can also change how we present the food. In situations where we need calm or precise behaviors, feed one treat slowly and calmly. We can slowly feed multiple treats, one at a time, in cases where we want to give a better reward. A practical example could be that your dog held still while a stranger walked past on the sidewalk.

Sometimes we may need more active rewards when working on active behaviors such as come when called, walking, or a fast sit. For example, after your dog comes when called, we might feed several treats in a row rapidly and with enthusiasm. For most dogs, this will be better than just a single treat.

Another option is to play with food. For example, we can toss a treat for your dog to chase and then toss one in the opposite direction so that he’s running back and forth in front of you. This can be done on leash.

A treat can be held flat on your hand, and your dog can chase after your hand to eat the treat. Start out slow and gradually increase your speed or the complexity of the path. This is great for medium and large dogs. For our own comfort to play this game with small dogs, sit on the floor or have your dog join you on the couch,

Some dogs like to catch treats. This is great for activities involving sitting or attention on us. When dogs prepare to catch, their heads come up and are off the ground.

While some dogs will immediately love these treat games, some dogs may need time to get used to them before we add them to real-life activities.

Make An Impression

How we give treats can make an impression on dogs and help contribute to the types of behaviors we want. For example, we can use calming strategies when we need calm behaviors and active treat games when we want more action from your dog.

Ready for the next step? Check out Beyond the Treat: Teaching Dogs to Work Without Food Present or get personalized one-on-one help today!