When I began training one of my dogs years ago (and no, I won’t tell you how many!) the trainer used food treats as a training tool. Having previously trained my German Shepherds in schutzhund with a trainer who did not use food, I was skeptical. Not only did one of my GSDs have food allergies, but I had never used food in training. Without food treats, my dogs had been very successful – schutzhund titles, AKC titles, and both were certified search and rescue dogs. Why add food now?
So, being the obnoxious person I can sometimes be, I argued with the trainer. Thankfully he was patient and just said, “Just give it a try.”
I’ve used food as one of my training tools ever since. I like to use food because it works.
I can’t teach a dog until I get his attention and food is a great way to do that. A piece of chicken or Swiss cheese will get a dog’s attention faster than just about anything else. Plus, treats can be both a lure and a reward.
Using food as a training tool is also a positive technique; there is nothing negative or inhibiting about food. Especially if the food is something exciting, smelly, or new. I don’t use dog biscuits; I like to use leftover meat from dinner, cheese, or healthier dog treats with meat as the primary ingredient. I’ll even use bits of carrot or apple slices as training treats. And I vary treats so in any given training session the dog doesn’t know what’s coming next.
If your dog doesn’t like treats or is picky about food, there is always something that will work. A few years ago we had a woman in class with a picky dog. He just didn’t like any of the treats we had. So I told her that her homework this week was to find something in her refrigerator that her dog liked like. She came back to class with some Brie cheese and her dog was working awesome! She had his undivided attention. Of course, she had the attention of most of the dogs in class but that was fine.
Many dog owners are worried because they think they will need to use treats forever. And I admit, it gets old when you find leftover bits of food in the washing machine after forgetting to empty your pockets. That’s why I try to keep treats in the treat bag.
But treats are like any other training tool. I use a variety of training tools when I teach my older dogs anything new. I may use my voice, a leash, a collar, a clicker, a toy, a dumbbell, a scent article, a two wheeled cart – it all depends on what my dog and I are doing. As the trick or exercise is learned, some of those training tools will disappear. How to make those training tools disappear is a technique unto itself and I’ll write a blog post about that soon.
Although using treats to train dogs is a much more common technique now than it was when I argued with the trainer, we still have people come to class at Kindred Spirits and say, “I want my dog to be good for me, not just because I have some treats.” So I tell them what I was told, “Just give it a try.”
Photo: Petra Burke does a “Watch me” with Bashir, using a food treat. Photo by Becca Siminou.