There is a great deal of controversy regarding the use of treats in the dog-training process. You certainly don’t want to have to carry a bag of treats around for the rest of your dog’s life to get him to listen, but you do want training to be an enjoyable and positive experience for yourself and for him.
There is no doubt that the use of treats in training greatly increases the dogs’ motivation to learn new things. They are an obvious choice to use as a reward with a CR, because of their intrinsic value as a primary reinforcer. Since you can vary the size, number, and value (how much the dog likes one), they’re an ideal choice to strengthen a behavior with multiple rewarded repetitions. The problem with using treats is that they can become a crutch — for people and dogs- — if they’re not used properly.
Praise and Affection
You may think your dog should work for praise alone. While praise certainly is an important part of training, most dogs just aren’t motivated enough by it for it to be an effective reinforcer. The same is true with petting. Your dog gets showered with so much praise and petting just for being that those things really don’t have special value. Anything, including affection, loses value when it’s too freely available. Special toys or games are a valuable training tool to help your dog stay tuned in to you, and as a supplement or alternate for treats for some behaviors.
Dog Treats or People Food?
It’s really a personal choice as to what kind of treats to use. For training treats, you want to use something soft that you can cut or break into tiny pieces, like a quarter of your pinkie nail, but that won’t crumble into dust when you break it or feed it to your dog. You want your dog to be able to eat the treat without chewing it or chasing crumbs on the floor. You want him to swallow it quickly and look right back to you for the next repetition or command.
Treats — the Good, the Bad, and the Nasty
Human food lends itself well to making great dog treats — string cheese, hot dogs, deli meat, any kind of leftover meat, pieces of carrot or apple — whatever you have on hand and your dog likes. Dogs should never be given anything that contains onions, chocolate, or anything heavily spiced or salted. Low-fat options are the best choice for the majority of your treats.
Afraid your dog will beg if you use people food instead of dog treats? Your dog doesn’t need to eat people food even one time to know that it’s food. It’s the context in which you feed your dog that will cause or prevent begging.
Like some people, some dogs have sensitive digestions and don’t respond well to dietary changes, so use what’ s best for your dog. Dog treats, even those labeled as training treats, usually don’t make great treats for training. In addition to being expensive, they tend to crumble, and many of them are made with ingredients that are tasty but useless to your dog.