Treats are the #1 thing I make sure I got on me whenever I go to train a dog. They are the easiest, fastest reinforcer and universally desired by every dog. While some dogs might be more picky than others, and some may need some extra work to find the perfect treat for them, there is no more fool-proof reward out there.
One of the things I tell new clients in our first phone call is “Make sure you have a lot of great treats – we will need all of them.” Cut-up meatballs, hotdogs, bologna, string cheese; freeze-friend liver … whatever the dog will want to work hard for!
Sometimes, the reply is “But we won’t have to use treats all the time? When can he do it without the treats? I don’t want to bribe him?”
Ah, yes. There it is: The quest to have the dog work for minimal treats, ideally right from the start.
Curiously, the ones who should definitely not stop using treats – the owners very new to training – are usually the ones most eager to stop using treats. The more experienced the owner becomes, the less important minimizing treats get.
Let’s look at when (and if) it is ever time to wean treats!
Why Are We Using Treats In The First Place?
When we are initially teaching a new behavior, we use treats to show our dog what we want (whether that is through shaping, luring or capturing). He needs the treats to be told “right” or “try again” and figure out how to do what we have in mind. While we might want to believe that our dog will respond to verbal feedback only (saying “yes” and “no” with no other form of rewards), this rarely works.
By definition, a reinforcer is something that makes our dog more likely to show a behavior again. Dogs, like any animal, are only going to use energy and resources for actions that pay off in some way. Us saying “yes” may pay off enough for a sit inside with nothing else going on; but for a recall outside among a million distractions we will need something a lot more enticing if we want our dog to listen to us.
(A common scenario that breaks a dog’s recall is this: The owner calls the dog at the park and the dog actually listens and comes running to him. The owner does not carry any treats or other reinforcers with him. He is relieved that the dog came in the first plac