We use a lot of treats when teaching dogs a new skill, for several reasons: Treats are highly motivating, quick to deliver, and easy to carry.
But once your dog has learned that skill, treats should be phased out. And yet we meet so many people whose dogs obey them “only when I have a treat in my hand”.
There are three main reasons why dogs get hooked on treats.
Reason 1: Your Dog Only Gets Treats If You Are Holding A Treat
Dogs aren’t stupid. Well, they aren’t the most intelligent creatures on the planet, but they do have brains. If you hold out a treat and say “sit” and your dog sits, and then gets a treat, your dog learns that a treat in the hand = a treat in the mouth. Then, you tell your dog to sit when you don’t have a treat on you. Ever hopeful, he sits anyway. No treat appears, because you don’t have a treat.
So what has your dog learned from this? Unless your dog is an utter moron, he has learned that there is no point in sitting if he doesn’t see a treat. Dogs quickly develop a “show me the money” attitude about obedience. They want proof of payment before they will do the work.
Always carry treats on you, but don’t always give them out. Show your dog a treat, tell her to sit, and then pat her on the head and carry on without handing down the treat. Then tell her to sit with the treat hidden away, and when she sits, give her the treat.
Your dog will quickly learn that the presence or absence of a treat has nothing to do with whether she will actually be paid for her work. So she starts thinking, “hmm… maybe it is the QUALITY of my work that matters…” and she will offer you faster, better, more eager obedience in the hopes that this time she will earn a treat.
Reason 2: You Give Out Food For Free
I see it all the time – I ask a client to get their dog to sit, and they pull out the Pupperoni to motivate their dog. Meanwhile, there is a bowl of half-eaten kibble lying on the floor.
I have to ask – why is that food there? A half-eaten bowl of food tells me several things:
- The dog doesn’t love the food.
- The dog is being given more food than the dog needs.
- The dog doesn’t respect the food because it is freely available.
Don’t free feed your dog. Give your dog a small meal that can be finished in a short period of time. If your dog doesn’t eat it, pick it up and put it away until next meal time. Better yet, make your dog actually earn meals. In an ideal world, your dog would work for every mouthful of food she gets. Breakfast can be doled out bite by bite in return for good behaviour on a walk. Dinner can be served kibble by kibble during a long down stay while you eat your own meal.
But some foods are easier than others. If your dog is on raw, it’s hard to serve piece by piece, unless you break it into frozen chunks and make your dog earn each chunk during a short walk.
Even so, your dog’s meal should be served after your dog has been required to work, and if your dog isn’t interested, pick it up. A few hours of hunger won’t hurt your dog and will certainly motivate him to work for the next meal.
Reason 3: Treats Are The Only Reward You Use
Treats only work when your dog loves them and feels hungry.
What if your dog is full, the treats you are holding are not particularly appetizing, and your dog would much rather play with another dog than come get that dry, tasteless treat that he isn’t even really hungry for? You guessed it: your dog will simply keep playing with his friend.
Too many owners rely on treats to motivate their dog, and ignore a whole world of other motivations in their dog’s environment.
The best reward for your dog is whatever your dog wants most at the current moment. If your dog really wants to go play with his friend, he is going to pay approximately zero attention to your treats. Even if you do manage to get him to obey you and then reward with the not-so-motivating treat, you have just wasted your money in feeding a treat that your dog didn’t even really care about, when you had a much better reward at your finger tips. The real reward that your dog wanted was to go play with the other dog!
So USE THAT.
If you watch your dog for a day, you will see that there are lots of things that your dog wants in life. She wants to go outside, she wants to sniff that post where all the other dogs pee, she wants you to cuddle her, she wants to chase a squirrel, she wants to sleep on your bed, and she wants to play with her ball.
What is the point of chasing after her with treats when you have all of these other great rewards available?
Every time you let your dog go outside, or sniff a post, or chase a ball without asking her to work for it, you waste a reward. You might as well just walk around throwing chunks of steak on the ground for your dog to eat – either way you are giving out free “treats” that your dog didn’t have to earn.
When your dog wants something, ask your dog to do some obedience, or a trick, to get it. Then, instead of fishing a treat out of your pocket, give your dog the thing that he wants!
This way, instead of requiring treats in order to work, your dog will work for you because he knows that it is the best way to get what he wants – EVERYTHING!