You Don’t Need Treats Forever: How To Give Your Dog A Gambling Problem

Are You Hooked On Treats?

photo credit to Elf

When we come to your home and say that we want to teach your dog to sit, lie down, stay, and heel (as well as play dead, close your cupboard doors, ring a bell to go outside, spin in a circle, fetch your keys, jump over your leg and so on…), the first thing we will do is ask you to bring out the high value treats.

Many owners are reluctant to give their dogs treats.

They know too many people (maybe including themselves!) who have dogs who will ONLY obey if they have a treat in their hand.

No one wants to bribe their dog into being obedient.

Nor should you.

What you do want is a dog who obeys you eagerly each and every time you give a command.

How do you do that?

By giving your dog a gambling problem.

Let us take you through the process one step at a time:

The Three Steps To Being Treat-Free

Your dog will thank you for it! (photo credit to Mike Baird)

Step One: Learning A New Trick

When your dog is learning something new, you want to use high value treat (something delicious) and you want to give a treat reward for every success. If your dog isn’t interested in food, pick another highly motivating reward, like a game of tug.

In order to give your dog the motivation to learn something new, and a feeling of confidence that he/she is succeeding at it, you need those high value treats, and you need to keep ’em coming.

Step Two: Fine Tuning The Trick

Once your dog has the general idea, it’s time to cut back on the number of treats. You need to do this gradually, however, or your dog will get frustrated and walk off in disgust. Start with a success rate of 50%. Ask your dog to do the trick multiple times, but only reward him/her about half of the time. Try to reward the better responses – the ones that are a little faster, a little more enthusiastic – but don’t get too choosy just yet.

Within a single session you will notice that your dog has gotten dramatically better at the trick; he or she is trying a little harder and looking a little more intense.


Because by making the treats twice as hard to get, you have doubled their value!

You are also introducing a challenge to a trick that was getting a little too easy.

You rarely see grown men playing for hours at an Xbox game meant for 5 year olds. That is because there is no challenge to playing a game meant for small children. Instead, adults play games that they find challenging. It’s the challenge that makes it fun.

When your dog learns that he/she needs to work a little harder to earn that treat, he/she will double the effort.

Once your dog is doing well at a 50% success rate, and doesn’t seem to frustrated, you can cut back again. Start rewarding only a third of the time. Now you have tripled that treat’s value!

Then go to giving a treat only about 25% of the time. Now you’ll be able to really fine tune that trick. If your dog wants that treat, he or she has to give you the best of four, and those responses will be much faster, much more enthusiastic, and much tidier. If you want that “heel” to be a little straighter, or that “sit” to be a little faster, or that “high five” to be a little higher, you will get there by rewarding only the top 25%.

Then cut it down again. And again. And again…

Step 3: The Addicted Dog

By the time your dog is really good at that trick, you’ll probably be rewarding only 10% of responses, or less. That treat is now worth more than 10 times what it was worth originally. Your dog will offer you high-five after high-five, hoping that each time will be the one that hits the jackpot.

Your dog has become a gambler.

It’s funny – you never see anyone standing at a pop machine, putting in a toonie, getting a pop, putting in a toonie, getting a pop, for hours and hours and hours.

But even though we are rewarded 100% of the time (assuming the machine isn’t busted), we don’t get addicted to putting toonies into pop machines.

If you take a trip to Las Vegas though, you’ll find people sitting at slot machines putting in coins, getting nothing, putting in coins, getting nothing, for hours and hours and hours. Some people wear diapers so they don’t have to leave their slots.

Be a Slot Machine! (photo credit to LasLavarga)


Because they want the jackpot.

Gamblers will do the same action again and again and again with no reward in the hope that they will eventually get a big payout.

And THAT’S how you get your dog to obey you 100% of the time… by only giving treats 1% of the time.

Eventually, you won’t need high value treats very often. You save them for very rare jackpots, and can instead encourage with an occasional kibble or some other low-value reward, or most often, nothing at all. Your dog, now addicted to obeying you, will offer you excellent response after excellent response, in the hopes of hitting a jackpot.

The Big Mistake:

The pitfall that awaits most dog owners is jumping alternately between Step 1 and Step 3, without Step 2 in between.

If your dog learns that treats in the hand = 100% payout, but no treats = 0% payout, then your dog will only obey you when you have treats in your hand.

If you skip Step 2, you aren’t a slot machine – you’re a pop machine. And people don’t put money into a machine that is standing empty.

Don’t let this be you! (photo credit to Nick Moreau)

So, yes, we will strongly recommend that you carry treats with you at all times, but our goal is not to make you dependant on treats. Our goal is to make you free of them.

But that can only be done one step at a time.

-Carol Millman has a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and a diploma in Animal Health Technology. You can read her bio here.