Puppy Training-The Benefits of Treats
kyrasmygsd Debbie McKnight, PetSmart® Accredited Pet Trainer
When you train your dog, the dog is doing the correct behavior to either: 1) get something he wants; or 2) avoid something he doesn’t want. There are many rewards (technically called reinforcers) that you can use while training your dog. Food is generally the reinforcer of choice for many reasons:
• Food is considered a “primary” reinforcer; meaning, it is essential for survival. While some dogs may be pickier than others, all dogs are food-motivated. If they weren’t, they’d be dead. While we usually think of using “treats” to train dogs, any food will do – as long as they are willing to work for it. If you are giving away good food for free, he has no incentive to work for it. Save the yummy stuff for teaching and rewarding good behavior.
• Food is easy to use. It’s portable. It can be consumed quickly (compared to say, a quick game of tug as a reinforcer). It can be delivered in numerous manners (thrown, tossed, hand-delivered, etc). You can use it over and over again. Food, in general, never gets old.
• Food can be used as a lure. It’s very difficult to get most dogs to follow a toy or an empty hand; however, by using food, you can lure a dog to sit, down, come, or any number of behaviors.
• Assuming your dog will normally take treats, a refusal of food can clue you in to a potential problem. If you are training in a new scenario and the dog won’t eat, he’s probably too stressed or distracted to learn in that environment and you should go somewhere less stressful/distracting. Obviously, you would work your way back up to this level of excitement when your dog was ready.
• You can use food to teach your dog to like other things (like praise, toys, petting, etc). Since we do not always have food available, we should teach our dog to like other things that can then be used as reinforcers. For instance, if my dog doesn’t love petting (i.e. she’s not willing to work for it), then I can teach her to work for it by petting her and then giving her a treat. She will come to love petting because it predicts food. Then, if I’m out somewhere and I don’t have food, I can reward my dog with petting. To keep the “conditioning” strong, I should continue to pair petting with food every now and then.
• Who doesn’t like giving their dog a treat? While I’m clearly in favor of using food as a reward/reinforcer, I don’t think it should be the only reinforcer used. Variety is the spice of life! Come up with a list of things your dog is willing to work for and then use them all. That’s one of the many benefits of positive reinforcement – there are more reinforcers available than punishers.