Using Treats for Training

Consequences

Dogs learn in 2 ways.  One is by the consequences of their behavior choices – their actions.  People sometimes think “consequences” are bad things, but the definition is “results or effects of actions or conditions.”  This makes operant conditioning seem like a very simple process!  Positive reinforcement training means providing positive consequences (good things) when an animal performs a behavior you would like to see more of. 

One of the easiest ways to put it in action in your training is to always have treats available; when you see your dog sit, grab a treat out of the treat bag you have on and pop it into his mouth.  You need to be quick!  Good trainers practice speedy treat delivery because we don’t want to miss a short-duration behavior from a novice dog.  At first, your dog may touch his butt to the floor for less than a second – getting the treat to him quickly is your goal and really the only way the dog will understand what just happened.  Training through consequences is much more direct than holding the treat up as a bribe.  Your dog’s behavior literally causes you to get the treat out and give it to him.

A trainer doing a “high-five” with a brown and white dog.

Association

The other way dogs learn is by the pairing of an event with something good.  Treats are accessible, quick-acting, and easy to control, so they are the choice training tool for creating good associations. 

Reading your dog’s body language will tell you everything you need to know.  Does your dog’s body stiffen a little when a stranger appears?  Once you know that, you can give him a treat to associate the appearance of a new person with something good.  Keep giving treats the whole time the person is visible, don’t ask your dog to approach the person, and don’t let the stranger approach you and your dog.  Spend this time making good associations without risking your dog feeling threatened by upping the ante.  Turn and walk away with your dog after about 3 seconds – long enough – and stop giving treats when you’re away from the stranger.  It’s that simple for your dog to begin learning that maybe a stranger could be a good thing!  The same process helps build confidence with loud noises and other things that could frighten your dog.

What is a Training Treat?

MilkBones (registered trademark) are not Training Treats!  Training treats are little more than crumbs.  They might even be tiny bits of part of your dog’s meal allotment.  You want to give your dog a lot of treats throughout the day for training, so keep them small and very tasty!

Seven tiny training treats in the palm of a person’s hand.
A tiny training treat between the thumb and forefinger of a person’s hand.

How to Give Training Treats to Your Dog

You know your behavior makes a difference in how your dog behaves; you’ve heard it a million times.  You can give treats in a way that your dog learns to take them gently, eat them quickly, and be ready to perform a behavior again. Your goal is to get several repetitions and practice the correct version of the behavior.

Pinch Between Thumb & Forefinger

A trainer holds a tiny training treat between her thumb and forefinger while giving it to a brown and white dog.

Hold a Treat in Your Palm

A trainer gives a dog a treat from the palm of her hand by offering it in her cupped hand under the dog’s mouth and moving it toward the dog’s neck. The dog points his nose downward, arching his neck to take the treat.
A trainer demonstrates how to hold a training treat in the palm of her hand.
A trainer demonstrates how to give a dog a treat from the palm of her hand with her hand held vertically.

Don’t Pull Away

If you have some time off over the upcoming holidays, wear a treat bag while you’re home with your dog and hand out tiny training treats when you see behaviors you like.  Watch what develops!

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