November 8, 2023

The Power of Treats in Dog Training

There are lots of questions when it comes to training your dog! What is the best way, the best treats, and rewards? Get your questions answered and learn the best way to use treats and rewards in your dog's training.

Dog getting a treat

Why Should I use treats in training?

Reinforced behavior happens more frequently. We can reinforce dogs with food rewards, play, positive interaction, opportunities to interact with the environment, feelings of safety, and more. Most of these aren’t practical. All dogs need to eat to survive, so all healthy dogs will have some interest in eating. Some dogs are more enthusiastic about food than others, and some dogs may be hesitant to eat if they are nervous or have underlying health concerns.

Every dog is different, but most important is that we monitor how your dog responds and change our training to help your dog succeed. 

Can I use praise and petting?

Praise and petting are great parts of a reward and can be combined with food or toys. Used alone, praise and petting offer less flexibility or precision than food rewards. Food can be used to lure or guide a dog into position. We can also toss a piece of food away from the work area so that a dog can come back to the work area. We can’t toss praise 10’ away from us! Often praise and petting are better used as part of a reward process or for maintaining behaviors once a skill is trained. 

Can I use toys instead?

For dogs who already like playing tug or fetch, we can use these types of rewards. Dogs should know how to let go or bring the toy back and know when to take the toy. This might take weeks of training - or longer - for some dogs. If you need some help, check out our series on play. Dogs also need an option for playing on leash for times when you are training in public. Toy play typically increases heart rate and excitement. This is desirable for some tasks, such as come when called or agility training but can be challenging for calmer tasks like settle and stay. 

Toys are often not as precise as food. Even many working dogs will initially be taught with food and then switched over to toys once the dogs know the tasks.  

Most pet parents are primarily focused on calm behaviors, making toy rewards less suitable for those tasks.

How can I use different types of food?

While each dog will be different, here are a few starting points. We want to discover what your dog considers a low-value treat, a medium-value option, and a high value. In a more distracting environment, you will usually want to use medium and higher-value treats. At home, you might use mostly low-value treats but then pull out something special for a challenging task.

Low-value treats might include dry dog food (the same type or different from his usual meals), dry cereal, or biscuits broken into small pieces. Medium-value treats might be pet store treats and high value might be tiny pieces of boiled chicken, cheese, or pieces of cooked egg. Feeding multiple pieces, one at a time, can increase a treat’s value. Feeding a single piece will be less exciting. For more advice on figuring out what treats are best for your dog, check out our Pup U series, Unlocking Canine Rewards: Maximizing Training Success for Every Dog.

What if my dog has food restrictions?

We want your dog to be safe and healthy. If your dog has allergies or sensitivities, you can find options that work for your dog. For example, if your dog is allergic to chicken, you might use tiny pieces of cooked fish. 

If your dog is on a specialty or prescription diet, you can use his food as treats. You can also purchase the corresponding prescription canned food for a higher-value treat. Because we know this is expensive, you can open a can and freeze it in scoops or ice-cube trays. This lets you thaw one piece at a time to use. You can let your dog lick a tiny bit of canned food off your finger as a reward for a task. You could also use a squeeze tube to deliver it. Below is a video example of feeding lickable treats, such as prescription canned food. 

Should I use treats if my dog is overweight?

Work with your vet on a weight loss plan. Even dogs who are overweight still need food every day. You can use that food for training tasks. Talk with your vet, and you may be able to feed slightly less than your dog’s usual amount and then have a small amount of plain boiled chicken as a higher-value treat option. This would be lower calorie than the same amount of cheese, peanut butter, or most pet store treats.

Training games can be part of a fitness and weight-loss plan for cats and dogs. We want to account for any treats you may be using, and we can make use of every piece of dog food you feed. 

Is it healthy to use treats for training?

This is a trick question - it depends on what you’re using! Some types of treats may be more healthy than others. Some lower-cost treats have sugar as an ingredient, and some other packaged treats are just dehydrated chicken or fish. The number of treats can also impact your dog’s health. If you give one less-healthy treat for come when called on a hike, you will have less of a health impact than giving a hundred pieces of that treat during a one-hour training class.

Some types of foods are dangerous or toxic to dogs. Also, remember that high-fat foods are a risk for pancreatitis, so skip giving your dog bacon or processed meats, such as lunch meat, as rewards. 

A great option is to use items sold as complete and balanced dog foods. It doesn’t mean that you are changing your dog’s regular food - we can use this additional product as treats during training activities. Because these foods are complete and balanced, they should have less of an overall impact on your dog’s nutrition than only feeding “treat” products. There are a few dog food roll products; some refrigerated and some not. These come in a sausage-style tube and can be cut to any size you want. Another option might be freeze-dried dog food in pellets or patties. You can break them into the right size for your dog. There are a few air-dried dog food products that have a texture like jerky. These are often small pieces and great for training. You can also find a regular dry dog food that is a different brand or more smelly or try canned food.

Our training team can help you and your dog with reward-based training, whether using treats or play - we can work with your dog’s needs so that you are successful with your training goals.