33 Dog Trainers Talk About Training Treats

Training treats are a vital part of the dog training process.

A training tool, much like a leash is a tool, treats can be used as a lure, a motivator, and a reward. With so many uses, most trainers put considerable thought into choosing and using treats; I know I do.

To find out what other trainers do, I talked to 33 dog trainers (as well as one veterinarian and one pet sitter) to find out how they choose and use treats. These trainers were from all over the USA; including CA, OR, WA, ID, WI, MI, OH, IN, PA, NJ, VA, TX, and AZ. In addition, I talked to trainers from the Netherlands, Nova Scotia, New Zealand, and Australia. These trainers also represent a variety of training techniques and styles. So let’s see what they have to say.

The Dog Must Like It

A treat isn’t useful as a training treat unless the dog likes it. For this reason many of the trainers choose certain brands or types of treats acceptable to either their own dogs or to a wide variety of the dogs they train.

The sausage type rolls of dog food were mentioned by several trainers. These can be sliced, diced, refrigerated, or frozen. These are particularly attractive to many dogs because they are tasty and have a great smell. The downside is some of these will get crumbly in the pocket or training pouch and a few trainers mentioned they try to avoid food that turns into crumbs.

Many trainers mentioned they used cooked, dried, or dehydrated meats. Obviously meat is appreciated by almost all dogs. Sue Abernathy and Cait Macanliss both use cooked chicken while Gloria Maulding uses venison that is dehydrated and then frozen. Several trainers said they used any meat left over from their families’ meals.

Cheese is also popular, with several trainers saying their first choice for a training treat is string cheese. It’s individually wrapped, easy to break (or bite) into small pieces, inexpensive, and most dogs love it. A couple of other trainers, Melissa Duffy included, prefer Swiss cheese due to it’s stronger smell (hence more attractive to dogs).

One treat that several people mentioned (and that I had never considered) was cat food. Sheila Collins said, “For most training, I use good quality dry cat food as treats. It smells great to dogs, comes in tiny morsels that are just the right size, and doesn’t leave stains in my pocket.” Elizabeth Gibbs Clabaugh, DVM, a veterinarian who practices in northern San Diego county, uses cat treats or cat food as an aid in handling dogs in her practice.

Most of the trainers also said that besides being attractive to dogs, the treat needs to be healthy, not mass-produced overseas; and of ingredients that wouldn’t trigger allergies.

Size is Important

Most of the trainers mentioned that the size of the treat is important. Several trainers said Cheerios (the breakfast cereal) works great due to the small size as well as the fact that dogs love them.

No matter what treat is used for training, however, almost all of the trainers said that size was important. Pencil eraser sized treats means the dog can get more rewards throughout the training session without causing an upset stomach. The Honest Kitchen’s Quickies are small enough for dogs of all sizes and don’t require breaking or cutting, making them a good choice for training. If a treat can’t be broken or cut into small enough pieces then it loses it’s value as a training treat.

Treats Throughout the Day

When I asked, “Do you give treats during the day at times other than during training sessions?” the answers were varied. Dorien Vogelaar says she normally only gives treats during training but she qualified that by admitting training happens often during the day, even on walks and when asking the dogs to come when called. Melinda King says she reserves training treats for training. However, her dogs get chewing type treats at other times but these are simply a, “delightful surprise.” Dee Green uses treat only when training.

Several trainers noted that training can occur at any time, as Dorien did. Amy Bradley rewards for good household behavior occasionally while Michelle Barga said that she’ll reward behaviors throughout the day and that rewards don’t happen only during formal training sessions. After all, we’re training our dogs all the time, right?

©istockphoto/hnijjar007

©istockphoto/hnijjar007

Is There a Limit on Treats?

The general rule for treats as proposed by many nutritional experts is that anything added to the diet should not exceed 10% of the calories fed each day. For example, if the dog normally eats 500 calories per day, the treats or other extras should not exceed 50 calories.

Most of the trainers were aware of this and kept it in mind when using treats. The small size of the training treats helped in this regard as did the choice of the treat used. A few trainers said that on days when a lot of treats were given, the next meal might be slightly smaller than normal. Other trainers used a part of the dog’s meal as a training treat. Joyce Charron says, “If we’re doing a lot of training, then supper is made into training treats so I can manage the dogs’ weight.”

A couple of trainers, including Hope Schmeling, mentioned that too many treats can cause an upset tummy and so how many treats are given must be monitored.

Varying the Treats

Some dogs, if given the same treat during each training session, will be just as excited the tenth time as they are the first. Other dogs, though, will get bored with the same treat. Having several different treats available is great for these dogs.

A few trainers said they have good treats for rewards and then great treats for extra special rewards. Mary Peaslee bags up some Cheerios with some smellier, more special treats so that the cereal absorbs some of the smell. She ends up with two different (but both useful) treats.

When Great Treats are Too Much

There are dogs who can’t handle the excitement of a great, smelly treat. Maryna Ozuna says, “Pups are coming in for training so unfocused, so full of adrenaline, that I’ve stopped most treats and just use a measured portion of their food. Within three or four days of coming in for training I’m getting better focus than I ever did with treats. I’m finding less is more.”

Interestingly enough, several trainers said they use kibble, cat food, or Cheerios as training treats (rather than meat, cheese, or other stronger treats) for similar reasons. Some dogs are too excited by higher value treats but with kibble, cat food, or Cheerios the dogs will cooperate with the training without losing their mind.

Don’t Forget Other Rewards

When talking to the trainers, I stressed this article was about treats but several of them stressed that other rewards couldn’t be ignored. Dianne Kuhl says, “Some dogs will do anything for food, but it’s important to keep in mind that rewards can also be playtime with a special toy, praise, or just working in partnership with their favorite human.”

There isn’t One Guaranteed “Catch-All” Solution

Although many of the trainers I talked to agreed on many things, including the size of the treats, otherwise opinions vary on which treats to use, how to use them, and how much is too much. That’s okay. Just as every dog trainer is different so is every dog being trained.

The best way to find out what works best for your dog is to try different things. Take this information and play with it. Try some chicken or some Cheerios and see what happens. Have fun with your dog while you’re training. That’s the best.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and the co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in Vista, CA. Liz is also an award-winning author and writer specializing in pets. She writes about cats, cat behavior and health, dogs, dog behavior and health, living with pets, and pet nutrition. Liz’s works have been recognized with many awards, but her most recent book, “Idiot’s Guides: Dog Training” (Penguin Books, 2014) recently won the Best Nonfiction book category in the San Diego Book Writing competition. Liz shares her home with two dogs; Bashir, an Australian Shepherd, and Bones, an English Shepherd. Three cats, Spock, Scottie, and Kirk, provide motivation for her articles about cats. And yes, she is a Star Trek fan. For more information go to www.kindredspiritsk9.com.

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