Dogs LOVE getting treats and most owners love giving them! Walk into a pet store and you’ll find a dizzying variety of dog treats.
Treats can be used as a training tool or just as a way to spoil your dog! In fact, dog treats are one of the primary reinforcers for dogs.
What’s a primary reinforcer? By definition it’s a stimulus that is biologically important to an organism. In simpler terms? It’s something naturally appealing to your dog. We can use primary reinforcers to motivate our dogs to repeat behaviors that we want!
As a force-free dog trainer I heavily rely on dog treats for establishing good behaviors.
Rather than correcting the dog for doing the “wrong” thing, I reward them for doing the RIGHT thing! This leads to engaged dogs that want to learn. Positive reinforcement training works!
However, not all dog treats are created equally!
Here are some things to consider when choosing treats:
What is a “high value” dog treat for YOUR dog:
Just like us, dogs have different preferences when it comes to food. Some dogs love fresh vegetables, some spit them out. If you’re going to be training a more difficult behavior or skill it’s important to choose a very high value dog treat. You want the dog motivated!
What is a high value dog treat? It’s something that your dog absolutely loves and will work very hard to get! Each dog is different, but for most dogs these will be higher protein options.
Think about it: if you held out both a piece of apple and a piece of chicken, which do you think your dog would go for?
Likely the chicken!
The same would likely happen if you offered your dog a milk bone versus a liver treat!
Dogs typically choose the meaty, high protein option.
If clients are unsure which food or treat is higher value to their dog I often suggest testing it by offering 3-4 things at once. The one your dog goes for is higher value! They select it over other options.
Save the highest value food or dog treats for when you’re training the most difficult behavior. You want the excitement for that food to be high!
Higher value = higher motivation.
Make sure the dog treat is the right size:
I’ve seen clients give bulky treats to their dogs during training. Don’t do that! A simple rule is that if your dog has to chew, it’s too big to use as a training treat.
You’re going to be reinforcing frequently during training, so choose tiny treats! A pencil eraser size is a good starting point (even smaller for tiny breeds!).
Small treats are easily consumed, help prevent stomach upset, and are less likely to lead to a chonky dog 😉
You can either break apart larger treats yourself, or buy ones that are already training size. Here are a few good options:
Pet obesity is becoming a large problem (pun intended).
Choosing the right size treats will help, but make sure you also aren’t using too many.
You’ll want to keep treats to <10% of your dogs overall calorie needs. They’re a wonderful training tool, but it’s still important that the majority of your dogs calories come from healthy, balanced meals.
Use a variety of treats:
Offering a variety of treats has multiple benefits.
First, variety is the spice of life! Prevent boredom by varying what you use as treats. This will keep your dog more motivated to work.
Secondly, providing a variety of foods helps prevent accidentally overproviding any one nutrient or ingredient.
For example, cheese works very well as a training treat. However, providing too much full-fat cheese can be hard on a dogs pancreas.
Another example is liver treats. I use liver frequently because it’s single ingredient, dogs love it, and it contains a lot of nutrients! However, liver treats are high in vitamin A which is a fat soluble vitamin. In high quantities it can cause liver damage!
Too much of any one thing can be harmful. The easiest way to prevent problems is to offer a variety!
Keeping treats to ~ 10% of overall calories and varying which kinds you use will help keep your dog motivated and healthy.
Choose healthy options most of the time:
I commonly see hot dogs suggested as a very high value treat. It’s true! Dogs usually LOVE them.
However, hot dogs are not the healthiest option for dogs (or us).
As a sometimes treat, go ahead and use them!
Most of the time I’d recommend choosing single ingredient options or treats made from whole foods though.
Great options include boiled chicken, salmon, lean ground beef, or even fruits & vegetables (if your dog likes them).
If using packaged dog treats, try to buy ones with ingredients you recognize.
Not everything your dog eats needs to be healthy, but try to make good choices when possible!
Make sure you avoid toxic ingredients:
It’s common for people to choose “human food” or to make dog treats themselves.
I think that’s great!
Make sure that the ingredients you’re selecting are safe for your dog though.
For example, most humans love adding garlic to their own food. Did you know it’s toxic for dogs though? So that seasoned chicken you cooked for yourself isn’t a good option for sharing with your dog.
Peanut butter powder is frequently used in homemade dog treats. No problem there! However, read the ingredient list and make sure it’s just peanuts. Xylitol is frequently added for sweetness, but xylitol is extremely toxic to dogs!
Dogs don’t need spice or flavoring added to their food! For a list of ingredients to avoid, look here.
Dog treats are wonderful, and as a force-free trainer I use them frequently!
By keeping these considerations in mind you’ll be able to spoil your pup while keeping them healthy.
If you have any favorite treats or homemade recipes you love, drop them in the comments below to help other dog parents!
Happy training 🙂
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