For those of us who use food treats to train, that phrase is not unfamiliar. Many of us trainers hear it regularly from owners who believe they will end up with a dog who is dependent on treats in order to comply. If done properly, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
I always explain to prospective clients that I use food to train behaviors, sure—it’s fast, easy, and fun. But once the dog understands and is performing a particular behavior well, they are then weaned off the treats by progressing to a schedule of random reinforcement (which isn’t a schedule at all, but really just a fancy way of saying they get a reward every now and then—just like the slot machine effect). We also start using real life rewards instead such as the door opening for a walk, or a bowl being placed on the floor to allow them to eat in return for the good behaviour that has been learned
Sometimes the concern with using food is that the dog will gain weight. This is of course a legitimate consideration, and is compounded if the dog already has weight issues. It’s true that if treat training is used heavily a dog can gain weight, just as if I were given a few chocolate treats each time I did something right, I’d soon be complaining that my jeans were too tight (wait, I’m already there, I must be doing sooo many things right and getting too many treats!). Here are three easy solutions:
1. At mealtime, feed only one half to two thirds of the dog’s usual ration. Use the rest as training treats throughout the day. (Easier done with dry food .
2. Cut back on the amount of food the dog gets at mealtimes to compensate for the extra calories he’s getting from training treats. Just make sure the treats are nutritious.
3. To make the treats more special and your dog eats dry food, place 1/3 or so of the meal (subtracted from the regular feeding) in a plastic bag with some chicken or a sausage. Seal and store in the fridge overnight. In the morning, remove the chicken or sausage, and you’ll be left with yummy-smelling kibble that’s now a valuable training treat. Or use the chicken and sausage as well for really good work.
It’s true that some dogs are actually more motivated by play or even affection than they are by treats, and when training, you should always use what the dog finds most valuable. But because most dogs are very food-motivated, keeping the option for using treats in training open is invaluable.