I consider myself a non-“treat-focused” dog trainer. This can be helpful when working with phobic or anxiety-ridden dogs who won’t accept treats in key trigger situations, or also with hyper or dominant/demanding dogs who are more in need of calmness and leadership than motivation.
But even in cases where treats can be helpful, it is eye-opening not to focus on them too much. Not because they’re unhealthy (there are lots of healthy treats nowadays), or because they’ll make your dog fat (you can use tiny bits, or even divvy up your dog’s regular meals), or even because they can trigger resource-guarding (though this can certainly be a problem in dog parks and other social situations). Not even because over-reliance on treats can leave you helpless whenever treats aren’t readily available, you’ve run out, or your dog decides he’s more interested in something else.
The main reason I find it helpful to steer owners away from edible treats because they start to recognize how many other rewards are available to their dog every moment throughout the day. Many trainers talk as if “reward” is synonymous with “treat”. Yet the fact that I only occasionally use edible treats does NOT mean I don’t use positive reinforcement, i.e. rewards for good behavior!
What I like to call “situational rewards” are whatever the dog most wants in that particular situation. These can include bellyrubs, praise, walking, running, playing, sniffing, peeing, tug o’ war, chase, fetch, meeting other dogs, getting up on the couch . . . Another trainer I respect calls “inclusion” in the family unit one of the most powerful rewards we can give a dog.
Situational rewards can be vastly more transformative than sole reliance on edible treats. For instance:
- working recall (“come”) at the dog park. Most dogs will happily take time out from socializing to gobble a treat; however, the real reward they want is to be released back to running and playing with the other dogs or chasing a ball. If “come” means those other rewards get removed, your pup probably won’t want to come no matter how big a bag of treats you have.
- walking on loose leash. You can keep some highly food-motivated dogs hyper-focused on you during leashed walks by constantly reminding them that you have treats, and occasionally dispensing them. But treats certainly aren’t a necessity for loose leash walking, since the main thing your dog wants, when walking, is to keep walking! Keep your dog behind you, so he learns that all the great things that happen on the walk come as a result of following your feet, and he won’t want to do anything else. Walking, sniffing, finding trees to pee on, meeting other dogs and people, and getting to the dog park are all built-in ways of rewarding obedient leash walking.
- passing other dogs on the street calmly. It is natural for dogs to want to give a quick “hello” sniff to passing dogs. You can reward their passing calmly by distracting with treats, But generally they’ll gobble the treat then go right back to obsessing on the forbidden dog. If you can at least sometimes allow them to do a quick meet & greet, the pent-up tension of seeing the other dog often pops like a balloon and dissipates.
- greeting visitors at the door. The doorbell rings, your dog goes ballistic. Again you can try to distract him with treats while you welcome your friend inside, but as soon as the treats are gone your friend will either be jumped on or barked at. If instead you can work a calm obedience ritual like “go to your bed”, after which the reward is being released up to sniff you friend and even get pets or treats from him, your dog’s curiosity will be purged.
- nipping/mouthing in puppies. Every puppy “bites” on the new owner’s hands, sleeves, shoes, pants legs. Yes puppies are cute, but their teeth are sharp! Think of what your puppy is asking for: interactive play. Redirecting to a rope tug toy, ball to fetch, or game of chase will give more effective and longer-lasting relief than simply diverting their behavior using edible treats.
- chewing. This is different from nipping/mouthing. You know your pup needs to chew if you catch him gnawing on things like chair legs, leather shoes, or pencils. This is behavior that is not looking for interactive play in the way tugging on your pants leg or even nipping your hand normally is. Again you can distract with treats, but that won’t satisfy the pup’s need to masticate. Redirect to appropriate chewing outlets such as antlers, bully sticks, or any other safe but satisfying alternative.
Treats can be helpful in many situations. But if overuse of treats is keeping you from noticing and using all of the other constantly available situational rewards, you may be missing out on many training opportunities throughout a normal day.