Fans of mine know how important positive reinforcement is to me as a behavior modification technique. Positive reinforcement might not always mean treats you can eat, but they are one of the most popular tools for both dogs and owners. Giving dog treats is more than an expression of love for our dog; it can be a critical component in dog training and rewarding good dog behavior.
One of the reasons treats work so well in training, is because a dog’s sense of smell is so unbelievable. Dogs can smell a treat from over 20 yards away and can get a pretty good idea of the main ingredients. Not all treats are created equal though. Here are some tips for which healthy dog treats to give, how to give dog treats, and when to give dog treats.
How to use dog treats most effectively.
Use treats to reinforce a calm, submissive state. Never use dog treats to reward an excited, over-stimulated state of mind. Always let the dog smell the treat first, but hold it up away from her and wait. Remember dogs can smell from over 25 feet away so you don’t have to put the treat under her nose. Once the dog has the scent, she may jump around at first, and will probably jump on you. If so, indicate your disapproval with your attitude and body language and slowly move yourself back or to one side…and then wait. Remember, your moment of patience as an owner will pay off in a well-behaved dog for a lifetime.
After a while, your dog will probably begin to try to figure out what she needs to do to get the treat. She will lower her butt to the floor and wait while looking at you in quiet anticipation. At that precise moment of calm, give her the treat. Don’t use treats to reinforce an excited dog, but rather to command the calm, submissive state.
When to give dog treats.
In between meals is the ideal time to give treats. Choose a treat that your dog will enjoy. As a rule of thumb I save the best, most delectable treats for last, to reengage a dog if she begins to lose interest in the training session. If you are using treats as a training tool, your treat won’t work as well right after your dog has had a full meal. Make sure your treat giving occurs in between meals and not immediately before or after a meal.
Here is a good technique for giving treats. Hold the treat in your hand between the first two fingers and the thumb. Let your dog sniff so that she knows it is there, and remember my rule: nose first, then eyes, then ears! When you engage your dog’s nose, you are appealing to the most important part of her brain.
Next, as she is sniffing and getting interested, slowly lift the treat above nose height and move it gradually over her head and slightly back towards her shoulders. The aim is for your dog to lift her head up, move her shoulders back, and naturally have her butt lower to the floor.
Lift the treat slowly and easily so that your dog’s nose follows it in your hand. If she jumps at your hand, take it away. Next time, have the treat hand closer to her head. The moment she begins to follow the treat with her nose and eyes and her butt beings to move to the floor, say, “sit,” calmly and easily, and give her the treat. Use a natural voice as you don’t want to startle or distract her. Remember, one of my cardinal rules for training is “don’t overexcite your dog so that she loses the lesson in all the commotion.”
What ingredients to look for in a dog treat.
When choosing a dog treat, make sure it’s something your dog will like and something that’s appropriate to give a dog. When buying treats (and food) for dogs, it’s good to follow the same common-sense rules you’d use when shopping for your family. Look at the ingredients list. If the ingredients include things you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce, it might not be the best treat for your dog. Also, keep in mind your dog has a different palate than a human. You might not serve beef trachea at your next dinner party, but for your dog, it’s like filet mignon. Junior loves liver bites and Coco would do almost anything for beef tendons.
Keep in mind, too, that human treats are not necessarily good for dogs. You’d think if a dog would like beef tendons, he’d probably go for a chocolate bonbon, but chocolate actually makes dogs sick. There are many things that we eat that dogs are allergic to or literally can’t stomach.
Ask the vet or local pet specialty store about dog treats.
Your veterinarian is a lot of things to your dog—doctor, dentist, pharmacist, and you can add nutritionist to that list. Your dog’s nutritional needs will vary based on age, breed, and other factors. Your vet can give you the best advice on what type of treats are best for your dog. If you don’t have access to a vet, try your local pet specialty store. I have found very knowledgeable sales help in local pet stores.
Exercise and discipline before affection.
Remember, dog treats are a form of affection. They need to be given at the right time and for the right reasons. You can actually confuse your dog if you’re not consistent in how you administer treats. Make sure exercise and discipline come first and then affection.