Monday, June 27, 2011

How to Use Treats When Training

Treats are probably the easiest way to reward your dog in training. Luring with a food treat can accelerate his learning, especially in the beginning when your dog has no idea what you want. But there is a little skill needed to prevent it becoming a bribe.

Most dogs LOVE to eat and therefore, consider food a high reward and will be motivated to continue to receive the reward. There are a few dogs out there who think treats are alright, but really could care less if they got one or not. Find out what motivates these finicky pooches. Is it ball? Belly rubs? Just hearing your voice? That will be their reward. It’s really important for your dog to perceive it as a reward, not just you.

When considering a treat, use small soft treats. Your dog can quickly gobble them and he won’t be loading up on the calories. Many companies now make pre-cut soft treats, but the ole favorite is Natural Balance’s dog food rolls. You can cut them into any size piece, so they’re great if you have particularly tiny or giant dogs (or both!). Plus, they’re lower in calories than traditional treats.

When you first teach a new cue to your dog, have the treat out to lure your dog. After several repetitions, he’ll start to grasp the concept and the lure can be tapered back to a reward. This means that you’re not blatantly showing him that you have a goodie; he’ll see the treat when he performs the cue given.

Don’t bribe your dog. If your dog understands what you want and you feel you have to bring the treat out to get him to perform the cue, then it’s a bribe. Sometimes if you wait a few seconds for him to complete the command, he’ll do it. Just hold still, be quiet and let him think. So many times we just want him to do it now and don’t give the dog enough time to think about what was just asked of him. We throw up our hands and the treat out to have him do the command quickly. It’s not a race. Be patient. If your dog is thinking, yeah! That means he’s using mental energy and will be tiring out.

Timing is important for him to associate the reward with the cue he just did. You have less than 3 seconds for him to make that association. That’s it. Otherwise, he’ll think he’s getting rewarded for something else.

Nikita is lured for new command, Dance.
Nikita is rewarded for new command, Dance.

Once you have about 80% success rate with a cue, then you can move towards giving a treat on a variable ratio (remember PSCH 101 in college?). Sometimes he gets a treat, sometimes he doesn’t. Dogs don’t have a sense of morality, so they won’t hold it against you if you didn’t treat the last time. Think of it as a slot machine. How many people sit in front of those electronic boxes performing the same behavior over and over because little pieces of metal might spit out?

TIP:  You can also only provide treats to the best or fastest cue to encourage that behavior over the sloppy or slower ones.

Eventually you can wean treats off altogether and just tell your dog Good Boy and that will be enough for him. But in the beginning you want to heavily treat to motivate your dog and show him, yes, that’s what I want.

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