Should I use treats when training my dog?

Most trainers you go to will swear by using treats throughout your dogs training for anything and everything! From teaching tricks to behavioural modification, treats are generally a must have training tool from day one of getting your dog. Now let me start off by saying treats are a GREAT training tool and are key to pretty much any training exercise I do, however, i'm going to explain to you today why I don't use treats in all of my training and why treats aren't my primary conditioned reinforcer.


So first off, what is a primary conditioned reinforcer as defined in psychology?


A primary reinforcer is a reinforcer that an animal is born needing such as food, shelter and water.


A secondary or conditioned reinforcer is a neutral stimulus that becomes reinforcing when paired with a positive reinforcer. Once a dog is conditioned to find something reinforcing this can then be used to reinforce behaviours you like.


Generally most trainers will use treats or toys as a primary conditioned reinforcer as generally this is what most dogs find the most rewarding and it is therefore easier to teach the dog new things and get the dog motivated to work. Now there isn't anything wrong with using treats and/or toys as a primary conditioned reinforcer. For most dogs this is the best way to motivate them to do good things and teach them new things, the issue is when this is used as primary and only reinforcer for a dog.


Here's why.

When you teach a dog something new there are four stages to learning:

  1. Initial learning phase

  2. Adding distractions

  3. Building duration

  4. Building reliability at distance


Now I will start off by saying this is just for general tricks training and basic commands and not for more complex things like rehabilitation or behavioural modification. It is important to note that behavioural modification follows a slightly different process and that this model is just for tricks and general basic training.


So you start off by teaching the command using a high value reward, generally treats, to motivate the dog and reward immediately when they perform what is being asked. You then slowly start to phase out the immediate reward or shaping of the movement and simply ask, wait for a response and then either shape into the required command or reward after the command has been given. This is then repeated until the command is reliable on just a word and/or hand signal with a reward after.


A lot of people would then stop there and assume their dog 'knows' the command and should respond whenever asked and that's where the issue lies. The dog then needs to practice the command with distractions around, begin to build duration between doing the asked command and receiving a reward and building reliability at a distance.


For all of the above, I would generally use treats as my reinforcer as most dogs find this the most rewarding however, after the initial learning phase I always start to phase out treats as a reward and bring in other rewards for behaviours like touch, talk and toys depending on what i'm doing and the dog I am working with.


There are several reasons for this:


1. Some dogs don't want treats outside of the house

For some dogs, they are happy to have treats inside the house as a reward in training sessions but outside the house they are no longer 'high value' and not motivating enough to instil a reliable response to a command. Once a dog knows a command I will use whatever the dog finds the most rewarding whether that is touch, saying 'good boy/girl' or playing with a toy.


2. Sometimes I don't have treats on me!

Now here's something we see A LOT when someone has been doing reward only training for a while with their dog. The dog only listens and responds when they know there is a treat going to be given because they have been taught for however long that if they do something good they will always get a treat. We teach all of our dogs and those we work with that their reward can be one of many things and not simply just treats. Getting a stroke, a massage, a 'good job' or a game of tug can be just a rewarding if not more than just treats alone. However all of those are conditioned reinforcers and so your dog needs to be taught that these things can be a reward for good behaviour just as much as they do treats. If I am out for a walk one day and I don't have treats, I still expect my dogs to do the command! If I have a treat it's a bonus but if not, they still are expected to respond and will receive some sort of reward depending on what I have or what that dog finds rewarding.


3. I want my dog to respond because they want to please me not because they'll get a treat!

Something we see a lot is a dog who will do ANYTHING if you've got a treat in your hand but if you don't, they simply won't do anything for you. One of the biggest reason's a dog doesn't respond to an owner is because they don't believe they'll get a treat and during the learning process, they were taught that a treat was the only reward they would receive for doing good. When we're training our dogs, unless we teach them that a reward can be whatever we choose, they will only expect what they have been taught to expect. And just the same as if you only reward a child with sweets, when you eventually take the sweets away, the likelihood is there is going to be some frustration and they're not going to want to do lots of good things for no reward! If our dogs are responding to us just because they want to, getting a reward like a treat is simply a bonus and you'll find your dog to be more willing and responsive long term.


It's an important part of the learning stage that a lot of owners and trainers miss out and we end up with dogs who only respond to treats and nothing else. What can also happen is that the dog begins to get 'bored' of the same old treats or something else is far more interesting and the dog stops responding to them. Generally, most trainers or owners will then try to find more 'high value' treats to get the dog to respond. The issue with that is what happens if there isn't anything else that is high value enough to compete with whatever else is around? Again, you end up with a 50-50 chance of your dog responding depending on whether your dog decides at that moment whether the treat is high value enough to encourage them to listen.


If we instead teach our dogs to enjoy training with us and responding to us whether there is a treat there or not, we eliminate the issue with desperately trying to find the next most high value treat to win our dogs attention. Then, what we end up with is a dog who chooses to respond out of enjoyment when working with us and every treat becomes high value because it becomes exactly what it says on the tin: a treat!


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