Our training generally starts by using treats or toys to lure and/or reward while luring, shaping or capturing the behavior we want. As soon as possible, we wean the dog off treats and implement other types of rewards. However, for teaching initial behaviors, treats typically work best for getting a quick reward to the dog.
If your dog is not highly food motivated, we look at our alternatives. Quite often, it is not that the dog is not motivated by food, but that he is simply not motivated by the particular food you are offering him. If he is not a good eater, we might need to consider some changes to his diet. We also find that once dogs are working for their food, they enjoy it more.
Whether or not your dog is highly food motivated, we find other rewards to utilize as well. The more variety we have to offer as rewards, the better. Toys, bones, novel items, play, attention, praise or other options can and should be explored. The key is to find something that motivates your dog. Food is generally the easiest reward to start using, but it is by no means the only reward we can or do use.
When it comes to food options, there are many choices to use. When working with your dog at home, we recommend using your dog’s regular food instead of treats. Save the treats for more difficult or more important tasks, such as coming when called or working on cues out on your walk.
For training sessions or when we need something other than your dog's regular food, we recommend using small, soft and smelly treats. Small, because we don’t want the dogs filling up too quickly or filling up on treats. Soft, because it’s easiest to swallow these quickly and move on to the next task. Crunchy treats tend to break into many pieces and take time for the dog to clean up. This wastes valuable training time. And smelly, because dogs love stinky, smelly things! If they can easily smell the treats, it is much easier to keep their attention focused on the treat and what they are doing.
Possible treats are limited only by your dog’s digestive system, health and your imagination! You should have a few different options available. What works for one particular situation or time will not necessarily work everywhere all the time. For example, your dog might work for pieces of his kibble before dinner, in the house, and there are no other distractions around. However, you might need some roast beef or dried liver to get him to respond (initially) in the park on Saturday afternoon during a kids’ soccer game.
When you need higher value treats, look for healthy options. Dogs love junk food just as much as humans do, but try to limit the unhealthy stuff as much as possible. There are so many healthy options out there now, that using the junky treats is really not necessary.
Additional treat ideas include our very own Peak Power Dog Treats made of grass fed beef with nothing else added. Other options include: the canned (moist) version of your dog’s dry food, another brand of high quality kibble/dog food than your dog normally eats, moist dog food rolls, high quality healthy dog treats such as jerky treats or freeze dried liver; liver, chicken, roast beef, string cheese, fruits, and veggies. You may also use the regular dog treats you can buy in any pet supply store, but look carefully at the ingredients. Although made for dogs, many of these are really not very good for your dog. Find products that are not full of sugar, salt, additives, preservatives, food coloring, and animal by-products. Also, if you calculate the price per pound, some of these treats are pretty expensive for not very good quality. You might be able to find meat in the deli for less that is actually healthier for your dog!
If your dog loves his kibble/dry dog food and is willing to work for it, great! To make it more enticing – or anything else more enticing – try putting some kibble or other less valuable treats in a container with more valuable treats. (Hot dogs or chicken work great for this, but be sure they are eating very few of the actual hot dogs compared to their much healthier food.) Shake up the container to mix them up, and then put them in the refrigerator for a few hours. The less valuable kibble or other treats will take on some of the flavor of the other more valuable treats. Then slip in one of the really good treats every now and then!
A word of warning: Most of us are well aware that chocolate is not good for your dog – and in large enough amounts can be fatal – but did you also know that grapes, raisins, onion powder and even garlic in excessive amounts can be harmful to your pet? Please do not include these items on your list of possible treats. If you have any concerns about these or any other items, please discuss with your vet.
For any of these treat ideas or other options, please start with a small amount and keep an eye on your dog to see how he/she reacts to particular treats. If you find your dog’s digestive system does not react well to dairy products, please do not use cheese as a treat option!
Also keep in mind the health of your dog. If your dog is active, healthy and not overweight, fattening items like cheese are probably fine – in moderation. However, if your dog is overweight or has other medical issues, please choose treats carefully. Ask your vet if there are any specific concerns about your dog. Also keep in mind that you might need to reduce the amount you feed your dog at meal times if they are getting a lot of calories during training on any particular day.