Dog training treats are highly effective. Training a dog with treats is clever and kind, it’s conductive to positive learning and creates excellent dog to trainer trust. How exactly does treat training work though and how can you get the best from food rewards, with your own dog? Read on to find out.
Food is extra rewarding to dogs because it keeps them alive. It’s so important to the survival of a dog that food temporarily alters brain chemistry which has evolved over thousands of years. When a dog has access to tasty food his brain will naturally increase in dopamine, the motivation neurotransmitter. Dopamine also aids learning and memory, along with motivation and happiness.
What a fantastic effect from something as simple as a treat or two.
That said, we can’t randomly offer and give him food to change a dog’s behaviour. We must use food rewards carefully to achieve the best results.
Choosing Training Treats
There are a vast range of training treats to choose from. Try to consider them on a scale of low to high value by working out what your dog likes and what he really loves.
Kibble or dry biscuit we consider low value for many dogs whilst enough to trigger a huge surge of motivation for others (frequently Labradors). Soft and smelly treats are usually a step up from kibble and slightly more motivating, we can consider these medium value rewards. Fresh cheese or liver cake is a high value reward and motivating to most dogs.
Every dog is an individual. Test your dog out, see which food excites him starting with low value. Use the teats that he will happily think and learn for. Leave the higher value treats in reserve for when he needs to learn or do something extra difficult and will benefit from that extra boost.
Keep your treats tiny, a taste is more effective than a mouthful and chewing is a distraction.
Using Training Treats
Training with treats requires skill which can be learned by practice. Marker training can help, such as clicker training or simply using a marker word which the dog learns to associate with a treat. If you have never used it, check out this post to get started.
When teaching something new we don’t let the dog get it wrong at any point. We use the treats swiftly with barely any interval between them as a continuous confirmation that the dog is getting it right. If we leave a gap between delivery for even a second, that’s enough for the dog to doubt himself then we get into the realms of confusion.
A good example at this stage is to reward the dog at every single step when he’s learning the heel position.
When the dog is starting to learn and his confidence is high we introduce gradually increasing gaps between treats. This will coincide with him getting the idea and mustn’t happen too soon. The aim is to set the dog up for success and if we take away the learning tool too soon, the dog will flounder.
For the heelwork lesson we may now give a treat every two steps.
When the lesson is almost learned, we start to switch rewards. We first vary the type of reward so the dog never knows if he is getting a low, medium or high value food type. This will make him more excited about the lesson and help him to learn.
Finally, we start to slow down our reward delivery altogether. It’s vital not to withdraw rewards too soon or the dog will become confused and stop learning.
Heelwork at this point will be rewarded every few steps to keep the dog’s confidence high and the time between treats, gradually increased.
Eventually the training treats can be removed altogether because your dog has learned his task. We only do this when he finds it easy and then we can use the magic food, for teaching something else!
Important Note: We always bring food rewards back and maybe even use a higher value reward when we proof a behaviour. Proofing involves asking the dog to carry out the task in several areas amongst a variation of distractions. As a new area makes things more difficult for your dog, the reward should be easier to achieve until he can carry out his task wherever you are.