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  • Writer's pictureAislinn Evans-Wilday

Why Using Treats to Train Your Dog is Your Secret Weapon.

Updated: Jun 3

Since joining the animal training space, I have discovered that using treats to train your dog is surprisingly controversial. This controversy has definitely lessened somewhat in recent years but it is still there. Today, I'm going to tell you not only why I think using treats to train your dog is an excellent idea, but also why I think it's entirely natural too.

dog raising a paw for a high five

At it's heart, reward-based training is super simple. You ask your dog to do something, they do it, you reward them. They learn that when they obey your commands, they get a reward which means they are more likely to obey your command in order to get their reward. Simple.

It works by repetition and if in the beginning when you start training a new command you don't use enough treats or are inconsistent with your rewarding, then you will get inconsistent results. It's a bit of a quid pro quo situation. Eventually with enough of the right training (consistent repetition), your dog learns that by doing as you ask, they will get a reward and so you end up with an obedient dog.

Now, where I think some of the controversy comes from is the idea that some trainers and owners have which is that "my dog should do what I've told them to just because I've asked them to". Sure, if that's your opinion then I wish you all the best because this blog and my services aren't for you. I'm all about creating a really loving and respectful relationship with my dogs and I train them to want to do the things I ask of them. I don't want my dogs or the the dogs I walk and train to be responding to me out of fear of punishment, I want them to choose to obey my commands because they love and respect me. And they do.

What's more, by training with positive reward-based methods, you are creating positive learning experiences for your dog and this builds resilience. If 90% of their learning comes from positive experiences, then they are better equipped emotionally to handle the 10% of experiences that will be less positive (i.e. trips to the vet, encounters with unfriendly dogs and people).

dalmation dog taking treats from a man

So what happens when the treats run out?

I've had people say to me: "but if my dog always expects a treat, what happens on the day when I don't have any treats on me?"

Well, if you always carry treats and use them in your training, your dog will always expect you to carry treats and do as you ask of them, regardless. If nine times out of ten they're getting a reward, it won't matter on that tenth time that you've run out, because more often than not, they get the reward. This is where that repetition and consistent training comes in.

Dogs learn by repetition, so when you start training a new behaviour, you want to be really consistent in the early days. I always say, take treats with you wherever you go with your dog. Every walk, every pub lunch, every training session, every drive in the car. Even if you think you won't be seeing other people, other dogs or interacting with anything, life always has a way of throwing unexpected training opportunities at us. (And yes, this is a positive spin on the equally accurate life always has a way of throwing unexpected $#!{ at us.)

Again, I can't stress this highly enough: if you always plan to have treats on you and your dog gets used to you always having treats on you, then it won't matter that one time when the treats have run out or they've fallen out of your pocket or you've simply been caught off-guard. It happens. By controlling the times that you can and being prepared with your treats when you can (99% of the time), you will have built up enough good grace with your dog to let you off the hook the 1% of times when you don't have a treat to reward them with. And in these times, you're going to give them so much love and praise as their reward instead.

dog smiling

So, how is rewarding with treats natural?

Using treats as positive reward-based training is a natural reward for dogs. They are predator animals and their natural instinct is to work for their food, either by hunting or scavenging. The technical term for this is Counter-freeloading.

For some dogs, this instinct to work for their food is stronger than for others; take Barney for instance. He's so keen to work for his food that before he was castrated (and his motivation around food changed), he wouldn't eat his breakfast unless I threw his ball for him. He would run past his bowl, chasing his ball and return to his bowl with his ball, for a bite to eat. Then we'd do it again. This carried on for years until a) he was castrated and b) I changed his food, both of which I will discuss in separate posts.

I would be remiss if I didn't point out that some dogs simply aren't very food motivated. It's one thing for me to point out that in the wild, dogs are predators who have to work for their food and while this is true, it is also true that the dogs we share are our homes with today are not wild animals. I would be a hypocrite if I told you in one post to train your dog like they are a wild animal and in another gave you tips on how to choose the right coat for them to keep them warm in winter. But this post is for those of you that are fortunate enough to own dogs that are food motivated and who love to earn treats. I hope that this has shown you why using treats to train your dog is not only an easy and effective way to train new things but that it is also a very natural instinct for your dog to earn their food and how you can use this to your advantage.

dog giving a high five

Forever paws,

Aislinn 🐾

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