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Choosing the Right Treats

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is adapted from information in Karen Pryor Academy’s Dog Trainer Foundations course.

A crucial choice

Choosing the right training treats is so important that it can mean the difference between a successful training session and an unsuccessful one. Clicker trainers often use food treats for training new behaviors because they allow for lots of quick reinforcers. But how do you know what food to choose? Animals learn much faster if the rate of reinforcement is high. It’s easier and faster to deliver a small, soft food treat than, say, a thrown tennis ball. This makes small, soft food treats ideal for teaching new behaviors.

Make sure the dog considers the food valuable 

Your dog must like the food you are using enough that he is willing to work for it. Otherwise, it cannot serve as an effective reinforcer. If you notice that your dog doesn’t seem to be enjoying the food treats you’ve selected, or his attention is starting to wander, try something else.

Also, keep in mind that when you’re asking the dog to do something more difficult, you should make sure the value of your reinforcer reflects that. While a low-value reinforcer such as a piece of kibble may be fine for training in your living room, higher-value reinforcers such as diced hot dog may be needed in more distracting environments.

Dogs get bored just like we do, and variety can be essential to the training process. While some dogs will work enthusiastically for the same food day in and day out, many will not. Training with different kinds of treats, and varying your reinforcers within training sessions, will maximize their value. Keep three or four different types of treats on hand, so you can be ready to switch quickly if your dog loses interest in one kind.

Treat size: think small…

Treats need to be delicious, but very small!
Consider this: During a successful three-minute training session, you could easily be delivering 30 or 40 treats! That’s just one session. It’s not at all unusual for clicker trained dogs to consume 100 or more treats in a day.

That means a lot of learning happens, but also a lot of treats are consumed. The aim is to give the dog the pleasant experience of tasting and smelling something wonderful, over and over again. The treats need to be delicious, but very small. Pea-sized treats are plenty big for medium- to large-sized dogs, and half that size is plenty for smaller dogs.

…and soft! 

Small treats that the dog is able to consume quickly and easily will help you, the trainer, maintain a high rate of reinforcement and optimize the learning. Hard, crunchy treats like biscuits that take a long time to chew are okay for maintaining behavior, but they are more difficult to use training a new behavior because:

  • They can slow the rate of reinforcement immensely if the dog takes several seconds chewing each treat.
  • They are usually much too large to use as training treats; they would fill up the dog too quickly and/or cause unwanted weight gain.

When training in a new or challenging environment, it’s a good idea to use perishable, high-value treats.
When training in a new or challenging environment (such as the vet’s office, around strange dogs, or at a dog-sports competition), it’s a good idea to use perishable, high-value treats. Soft things like diced hot dogs, liverwurst, deli meat or cheese are highly valued by most dogs and are very easily consumed. (One caveat is that “slimy” treats such as those can sometimes be a little more difficult for a novice trainer to deliver swiftly.) Some examples of soft, high-value reinforcers include:  

  • diced hot dogs
  • cut-up deli meats (e.g. ham, turkey)
  • diced liverwurst
  • meatballs
  • bits of bacon
  • leftover steak
  • bites of burger
  • diced chicken

Non-perishables have a role, too

High-value treats, although usually appreciated by dogs, are not the most practical to carry around all the time. There’s definitely something to be said for having non-perishable treats always at your disposal. Non-perishable treats are easy to use for day-to-day training both in the house/yard, and out on walks. These treats are already cut up to the perfect size for training, and you can carry a handful of them in your pocket or keep a bag of them around without worrying that they will go bad. Having them always at the ready allows you to “catch” your dog being good and quickly reinforce him or her. Some favorite non-perishable treats are:

A long-lasting treat

My favorite long-lasting treat can be consumed in a crate, in the car, as I’m leaving the house, or during a boring/rainy day. My choice is always either a bully stick or a frozen Kong. Kongs are so versatile, are easily washed, and can be filled with anything you want. My favorite fillings include a combination of 2-3 of the following:

  • cream cheese
  • peanut butter
  • canned pumpkin
  • plain yogurt
  • mushed banana
  • diced apple

Let your DOG tell you what he finds most reinforcing...
It’s best to have a variety of treats (perishable and non-perishable, easy to deliver and long-lasting) on hand. Remember, the more difficult the behavior, the higher value the treat should be. Most of all, let your DOG tell you what he finds most reinforcing and use in new, high-expectation, or difficult training.


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About the author
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Lori Chamberland is the Director of Karen Pryor Academy. She also provides limited in-home dog training in the Hudson, MA, area. A canine sports enthusiast, Lori and her dogs have competed in agility, K9 Nose Work, and Treibball. 

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