As a positive dog trainer, I utilize food rewards to help create positive associations and reinforce learned and desired behaviors. There are many different options to choose from but I often find myself falling back on certain foods and brands of treats time and time again.
In some situations, your dog’s daily ration of kibble can function effortlessly as a dog training treat, especially if you are in an environment with minimal distractions. Instead of plopping your companion’s meal into a metal bowl and placing it on the floor, simply bag their breakfast and/or dinner and use their meal bag for treats throughout the day. This will ensure that you have the opportunity to complete many repetitions of training exercises without adding excess calories to your dog’s daily intake. After all, excess calories can lead to excess energy or weight gain.
The size of the food reward is important to keep in mind. If the treat is too big, your dog may spend a lot of time-consuming the treat & the treats may quickly satiate the dog. If the treat is too small (ex. crumb-sized), your dog may lose interest. However, especially with lure-reward training, most treats can be broken down to the approximate size of your pinky fingernail. When luring your dog, it is important that the treat is small enough that it can be placed between your fingertips so that your dog cannot visualize the treat. Hiding the treat between your fingertips will discourage the need of a visual cue of a food reward for your dog to complete a desired behavior. It is more important that your dog is interested in the treat they are consuming than rewarding with a larger treat.
I do use commercial dog treats but I am particular when it comes to the nutritional content of treats purchased from pet stores. Whenever possible, I choose to use dog-safe human foods as an alternative to processed dog treats. Some examples of food that I use as dog treats include peanut butter, sweet potato, and pumpkin. For example, I will slice sweet potatoes, steam them, and place them into a bag when cooled and use them just like other training treats. When selecting “human” foods for your dog, always make sure to double check that those foods are safe for your dog.
When purchasing dog treats, I seek out treats that are void of corn, soy, and wheat and are sold by brands I know and trust. Chewy treats tend to peak dogs’ interest more than harder, less smelly treats and are generally easy to break apart, increasing their ease of use. I spend as much time choosing dog treats as I do dog food. Are you comfortable knowing your companion may ingest these ingredients daily? If not, consider purchasing higher quality treats.
Another factor affecting treat choice is the environment you are currently training within. Have you worked with your dog in this location before? Are there new distractions, like the outdoors or children? Are you working on a new skill? If you answered yes to any of those previous questions, it is likely something as simple as your dog’s daily kibble will not function as a high enough reward. In situations like this, your dog is more likely to be able to focus on you if your treat of choice is more alluring- smelly and full of protein.
When working with your dog, always keep in mind that every dog is an individual with different likes and dislikes. What may work for one dog may fail miserably with another. It is important to be flexible and willing to adjust to your companion to ensure that you and your dog can function as a successful team.