The role of treats in training

When you train your dog, there is no doubt that you will need treats to reward him for his hard work. But certain questions often arise about the treats we use while training. This article will address some of those questions.

1. What is the ideal size of treats used in training?

The size needs to be one that the dog or puppy can eat in no more than two chews. So the treat size is directly related to the size of the dog. A good rule of thumb is that, even for a medium-size dog like a Beagle, the treat should be about the size of the top joint of your little finger.

2. Exactly when in the training process should you give the treats?

It depends on the training method you are using. If you are using a clicker or a short word like ‘yes’ to mark the required behaviour, the treat can be given a few seconds after the marker. However, if you are not using a clicker or a ‘yes’ to mark the behaviour, the treat must be given at the exact moment that the dog or puppy performs the behaviour, so that he realises that what he is doing at that moment is the behaviour you are rewarding.

3. What are good treats to give?

The treat can be anything the dog or puppy likes. It is very important to make sure that your puppy actually likes what you think he likes! You also need treats that can be broken up into small enough pieces so that your dog doesn’t stop what he is doing in order to eat the treat.

Normally, the food you feed him at home is not rewarding enough to be used for training. You have to increase the reward in places of high distraction – like at a dog school or on a walk. If your dog is on a special diet, you need to learn to make home-made treats from what he is allowed to eat. For example, if the food has a wet version, you can cut small slices and bake them in the oven, so that you can break the slices up. Often wet treats are of more value – things like cooked chicken and liver bread – as they smell good and also will not dry out your dog’s mouth during a training session.

4. What types of treats should rather be avoided?

It is best to avoid salty treats – things like biltong and dry wors – because they make your dog thirsty. Also avoid treats that your dog needs to chew more than twice.

5. What should you do when you run out of treats in the middle of training?

If you run out of treats in a training session, you can always substitute the treat with a cuddle (provided your dog likes being cuddled) or a short game with a favourite toy. The other thing that is always available and not used to its fullest extent is letting your dog have some sniffing time. If your dog has done particularly well with a certain exercise, a wonderful treat is a five-minute sniff around the area.

6. How do you work out the nutritional value of treats so that you don’t overfeed your dog?

This is a difficult one – if you are feeding biscuits or his kibble as treats, it is fairly easy to work out how much he has had during training and deduct that from his daily ration. If you are treating him with things like chicken, you are adding extra protein but not extra carbs, so that should not have a huge impact on his overall weight. The best thing to do is to weigh him before you start a new training/treating regime and then keep an eye on him to see if he picks up or loses weight. Remember with training he is going to be using more energy, so he will need some additional calories.

7. What do you think is extremely important to keep in mind regarding treats and training?

I think the most important thing to always remember is that training is supposed to be fun for the owner and the dog, and what better way to train than to reward the behaviours you want your dog to perform? The treat tells your dog that what he is doing, or has just done, is what you wanted and because he is rewarded for doing this he is far more likely to repeat the behaviour.

A word of warning: this is why your timing of the delivery of the treat has to be so precise, otherwise you can easily end up rewarding a behaviour you don’t want. For example, when teaching a dog to sit, as his bottom hits the floor, treat him. If you are too late and you only get the treat out as he is standing up again, you are teaching him that the behaviour you want is a quick sit and stand-up!

By: Noleen Fourie, behaviourist