How to use treats correctly for reward and training

How to use treats correctly for reward and training
Shannon McKay, an animal behaviour consultant and trainer, who runs McKaynine Training Centre answers some questions on how best to use treats to train your dog.


What types of treats are easy to use and good for your pet?

Treats that can be easily broken into small pieces are ideal.  If they are dry and non-greasy this also makes them easier and more pleasant to handle and store. Almost any commercial treat in moderation is fine for most pets; however if a pet has specific dietary requirements or allergies then a vet should be consulted prior to using treats. Most commercial treats have a high fat content to make them more appealing, so it is important to remember that treats are treats and not a complete food!  Feeding household scraps as treats can be dangerous and certain foods such as raisins, grapes, chocolates etc. can be deadly for pets.  It is important for cats and dogs to eat balanced diets with sufficient fat, fibre, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals, remembering that different animals, breeds, and ages all have specific requirements.  And you effectively starve a pet to death when you don’t feed the correct quantities of a balanced diet.


During training, at what point do you give your dog a treat?

The pet should receive the treat precisely when he performs the desired behaviour. Even delaying the treat by one second can confuse the dog. He should ideally receive the treat in the same position that is being rewarded for example, if he is being taught to lie down and he gets rewarded for this when he is sitting he will think he is being rewarded for sitting.


Do you need to use any vocal affirmations whilst giving your pet a treat?

Yes, it is important to connect the verbal praise and the treat. This way the dog develops a positive association with the verbal praise – dogs have to be “trained” to know when you’re happy with them. This also helps when you do not have treats available. However it is important to continue to treat the dog intermittently for desired behaviour. We never totally wean a dog off treats, we simply ask him to do more before he gets a treat!


How frequently do you use treats during a training session?

With a beginner dog, treats should be used very frequently and as the dog progresses the treats would be used more sparingly. If the dog is learning a new command he is rewarded for each and every single correct response. Once he is performing the behaviour consistently he could be rewarded for every second or third correct response. Although it may seem that this could discourage the pet, they will actually work harder to get that treat. By keeping them guessing they have more focus and if they are given the odd jackpot (an extra large treat) for an excellent response, they will always endeavour for that jackpot!

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