Sextiped Valley: The skinny on treats for training
By observing our dogs, we learn what things they find intrinsically rewarding (how fun it is to chase squirrels, or bicycles, or the UPS guy) and what things we can use as a counterweight to those delights, once they have learned to relish those even more. So much of what we want our dogs to learn to do lies outside the range of their natural impulses, or even goes against them, that training necessarily involves applying motivators.
Treats encourage the learning of actions that otherwise would never occur to a dog. You teach a meaningful cue — sound of a clicker, or word like “yes!” — and pair it with a treat. In the learning phase, it tells the dog he’s on the right track. After he has learned what the command or request means, the reward (by then occasional) keeps him responsive even when there are other things he’d rather do. Like the way we go to work even on days that aren’t payday.
So here are some of the factors to be considered when using treats to inspire and motivate your dog.
Value (from dog’s perspective)
You’ll hear trainers referring to “high-value treats” and “jackpots,” contrasting them with ordinary reinforcement. When you are teaching your dog to do something hard for him, either because he’s having trouble understanding it or physically performing it, you want to use something he really loves, to keep him trying, and to make a big impression about how great it is to finally succeed.
High-value treats can be cheese cubes, bites of meat or chicken, cut-up hot dogs or frozen blueberries — but you need to know what really gets him excited. Ideally, they should be small, easy to deliver, quick to swallow and aromatic.
A jackpot is a whole handful, or a stream of rapid-fire bites, given when he succeeds in a task that has been challenging for him. Jackpots are accompanied by a real love-fest of your enthusiasm and praise. Ordinary treats keep him working and interested when you are practicing things he already knows how to do. They can be anything he likes but doesn’t go gaga over.
When you’re training, factor your food reinforcements into his daily caloric allotment. High-value treats tend to be higher calorie because fat and meat are the things dogs get most excited by. So calculate and alter his regular meals accordingly.
Keep in mind that mental effort burns a surprising amount of calories, so he will need more when he is in a heavy training phase, and these can come in the form of healthy treats.
Many people worry about using “people food” as treats because they have been warned not to. This is nonsense. Aside from avoiding foods that are known to be toxic to dogs, such as onions, raisins and grapes, chocolate and anything with Xylitol in it, wholesome foods are as good for dogs as for us. You learn what people foods your dog loves by offering her tastes. This will expand the range of motivators available for training and also help you improve her diet. But that’s a topic for another column.
Treat pouches have plastic linings so messy stuff won’t ruin your clothes, and just putting it on signals the dog that it’s time to work. But carrying goodies surreptitiously to reward good behavior when temptation arises (on a walk, say, when squirrels, or picnics, or deer poop appear) reminds him that he’s likely to be rewarded for coming back to your call with something specially yummy, and he’ll be much more likely to do it.
Some people frown on using treats as motivators, considering them to be bribes, and wanting the dog to learn strictly in order to please them. Usually, the alternative to treats is some form of correction or punishment. And yes, dogs do learn by that method. But the motivation isn’t love. It’s Stockholm Syndrome.
January is National Train-Your-Dog Month. With the weather we’re having this winter, teaching your dog a few new tricks indoors is delightful, and it even counts as exercise. So grab some treats and have some fun while the drifts pile up outside.
Laurie Raymond owns High Tails Dog & Cat Outfitters in Glenwood Springs. Sextiped Valley normally appears on the third Saturday of the month, but is running later this month because of space constraints.
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