Tips for Using Treats in Training

Finding the right motivation is the first step in training – we need to find something the learner will happily work for. Using food to train a dog is extremely effective. We can usually find at least one food treat that will happily motivate any dog to work with us.  

Treats are first used as a lure to guide the dog into a position like a Sit, then given as a reward for doing so. After several successful repetitions, the Sit can be put on cue. Then treats are used only as the reward when the dog is able to Sit on cue reliably. 

It sounds simple enough, but often people get stuck at that stage. What’s next? Owners can end up thinking they always need to have food to ensure their dog does what they ask.

Here are some ways to help make your treat use more effective.

1. Start adding in other rewards. Discover things your dog loves to do and start using them with treats as part of the reinforcement. Deliver a treat, then finish with another reward like play, fetch, tug, or chase games. Building other rewards into early training will help you transition away from a reliance on food.
2. Be generous. Treats build a happy, anticipatory association with training which makes it rewarding for your dog. Lots of them delivered at the right moment can be magic! Try rewarding one behaviour with 10-20 treats and see how well it works.
3. Timing is important. Ensure that you reach for and deliver your treat after the behaviour happens. Don’t jump the gun by rattling your bag, putting your hand in your pocket, or bringing treats out before the behaviour happens. All those extra movements signal that treats are available and turns food back into a bribe instead of a reward.
4. Don’t rush the basics. Do a lot of training repetitions in areas with few distractions. Take time to practice your mechanics and treat delivery so both you and your dog understand the goal. The role of treats in your training needs to be clear to your dog – a reward for doing something they’ve learned.
5. Ensure success is easy to achieve. Success is rewarding for your dog so don’t try moving your training along too quickly. If necessary, do a few repetitions luring with treats to help your dog understand that a previously learned behaviour is still the same in a new context. Then practice until treats are the reward – ideally in that same session.

If it feels like you need to have food to get your dog to do something, you just need to take a step back. Generosity and keeping your training easier, longer, will give you better success in the end. 

You’ll always have to reward to maintain your training - that’s just the way behaviour works. No one will continue to work happily and reliably without some reinforcement, but reinforcement can change from food to something else and from continuous to random. Keeping your training positive also keeps it fun. Then training with you becomes just one more reward!