There is no hard, fast rule on the use of training treats other than to USE THEM. Hopefully by now, most dog owners recognize the benefits of reward based training. It is not just because your dog will learn quicker. It is because when you use positive reinforcers you do not have to use forceful methods! You and your dog will work happily while building that great dog/owner bond we all strive to achieve.
Food is such a suburb motivator for most dogs, but we obviously need to monitor our dogs’ consumption. For this reason I feel it is a missed training opportunity each time an owner hands their dog a biscuit just because it makes them feel like a doting dog parent. Some folks are giving dogs a variety of useless snacks on a schedule as if they were little kindergartners. Besides, it is helpful when you do reward your dog for an action well done that the dog be a wee bit hungry rather than recently topped off by its three o’clock appetizer!
We recently took a little poll on which training treats were favorites with the doggie set. It is no surprise that not one person offers their dog a milk bone type cookie! Not that they need to be banned by any means, but training treats need to be small, easy to pack around, easy to give to the dog, and easily gulped so the dog can connect the treat to the behavior. If your dog has to chew and then sweep the crumbs off the floor, you have lost your training moment.
Some of the preferred training treats mentioned were Zuke’s Mini’s, Cloudstar, string cheese, turkey franks pieces, liver, and a few others that sound wonderful! Trainers often use little kibble pieces as well.
I recommend using different training treats for different situations and mixing things up a little bit. Focusing on what it is you want to accomplish is key while taking into consideration an effective strategy for your particular “student.”
For example, if you want to do some “shaping” with a clicker, expect to use a lot of treats. Shaping is creating a behavior by rewarding each small step toward the goal. The dog, unknowingly at first, hits on what you want as you click and treat to reinforce. Because each short session will involve many clicks, I often take a meal’s worth of kibble and dump into my pouch or pocket as you don’t want your dog to get sick from too much of a good thing. Using your dog’s meal as a training incentive was detailed in my recent blog “Ditch the Dish.”
As well, if I am trying to reinforce a dynamite recall I might resort to a very high value meat training treat used for special occasions. At this point your dog understands the skill of coming to you but needs proofing. Keeping your dog interested and ”on fire” to work for you may require adding some variety to the menu to keep him or her engaged.
The more difficult the exercise with regards to complexity and distraction levels, the more you need to strategize. As opposed to shaping where you are popping a reward very frequently to encourage a behavior, fine tuning with high value treats is facilitated by intermittent rewards. This will also prevent the dog from getting a stomach upset from an abundance of rich goodies.
An interesting study was performed by Dr. Mariana Bentosela, an Argentinian researcher who specializes in animal behavior and comparative psychology. Her aim was to see if dogs in training responded differently to high value training treats as opposed to low value such as kibble and if there was a loss of interest if dogs having been fed liver were switched to kibble during the second phase.
The dogs fed the prize morsels did exhibit a stronger learning response and maintained longer eye contact referred to as “gaze duration” than the dogs receiving kibble. However, when they were soon switched to kibble in the second phase, they showed signs of “extinction” or lack of interest in the treat and thus the exercise.
My take away is that we can conclude that dogs do respond to high value treats and they should be part of your training regimen especially for new or complex behaviors. It is always important to gauge when your dog comprehends and is executing a skill and then begin rewarding with intermittent treats. Be cautious, however, about “downshifting” to a lesser treat until the dog is reliable with the exercise. For shaping or for dogs who have trouble focusing initially, I like the “meal in the pouch” routine. In all cases, the goal is to gradually reduce the amount of treats given in the future and to be able to use verbal praise instead.