Lessons From Shedd: “When can I get rid of the treats?”

“When can I get rid of the treats?”  This is one of the most common questions we receive in our Beginning and Puppy training classes. If ever anyone was focused on the wrong question in training, this may be it. Let’s explore this common training issue.

The sea lions at Shedd are rewarded for a job well done with fish or squid. Photo by Sage Ross.

People can’t wait to stop using food in training. Some people feel that their dog should listen to them because of their natural authority or “alpha-ness.” Some want their dog to just do it because he loves them. Some feel that using food somehow cheapens their relationship. I disagree.

Food enhances relationships. How many family counselors suggest eating at least one meal together a day? Why do couples go out to eat at nice restaurants on dates? Why do we bake cake or other goodies for those we love on special occasions? Eating together enhances your bond. Taking the time to provide another with food shows that you care about them.

Here’s the deal: your dog has to eat. In fact, he has to eat every day. Most dogs eat multiple times a day. Regardless of your view on using food in training, you still have to feed your dog. His food can be used to train him. Why waste this opportunity?

One of the ways in which exotic animal trainers are able to achieve such complex and reliable behaviors is through their use of the animal’s daily food ration in training. Let me be clear here: the animals eat regardless of what happens in the training session. If an animal doesn’t want to train, he or she is still fed. Withholding food is cruel and unnecessary. If your animal isn’t interested in training, this is probably due to operator error. Are you putting too much pressure on him? Being too stingy? Too unclear? Asking for too much? Training in too distracting of an environment? Regardless, your dog is giving you great information. Take a good, hard look at your training program, and start over.

Understand, I’m not saying that food has to be the only training tool you use. This would be stupid and short-sighted. Use a variety of secondary and tertiary reinforcers. A smart trainer keeps things interesting for the animal. Neither am I saying that you should reward your dog for every single behavior. Once an animal understands a behavior, you can switch to rewarding him intermittently.

Also understand, I am not recommending using food as a bribe. If your dog will only listen when you have a cookie in your hand, you’re probably using that food incorrectly as a bribe rather than a reward. Rewards come after a job well done.

All this said, it makes me incredibly sad when someone can think of nothing other than how soon he or she can stop rewarding their dog with food. Why would you want to? You’re going to give that food to your dog anyway at some point. Make it count. Enhance that bond. Reward your dog for a job well done. Share food with your best friend. Eat together, grow together, build that relationship.

15 responses to “Lessons From Shedd: “When can I get rid of the treats?”

  1. So how do we make it so it’s not a bribe and instead a reward?

  2. Bribe vs reward? Is all in how you train. If you are dangling a treat in front of a nose, I would consider it a bribe. If the behavior is marked with a a sound ( click, yes, etc.) then the food appears and is given it is a reward.

  3. I agree that training with treats is very rewarding and once you get used to it, you don’t think about it much anymore. It becomes natural to have treats on you at all times, and you get used to ending your training sessions with slobbery, stinky fingers, frozen to the bone in the winter. But after my first few attempts at training with treats, I could not wait to be done with them, and it had very little to do with wanting my dog to respond “just because.”

    For a novice dog owner, using treats can be very difficult, cumbersome, confusing, dirty, smelly, painful, annoying, frustrating, tiresome, etc. When I got a dog, I pictured walking calmly down the street together with a leash in my hand (and hopefully a poop bag) and . . . not much else. You don’t imagine having to strap on a treat fanny pack and watch your dog every step of the way and reward it for one step without pulling. You don’t think you’ll find dog treats in the pockets of all your pants. You don’t imagine keeping jars of treats on the counter or in your car’s cup holder.

    Over time I learned to pick treats not only based on what my dog liked (he liked pretty much anything) but also on ease of transporting and feeding. I had some that I could put in my pocket without making me smell like summer sausage. Others could be put in a jar and licked so I could keep my hands in my gloves on cold days. Some were good for grabbing by the handful and tossing on the ground if my dog was so excited that he got a bit too mouthy with my hands.

    My trainers were really helpful at making the use of treats as easy as possible for me when I was first starting. It’s not as fun and rewarding when you’re new to dog handling and everything is overwhelming.

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  5. I actually enjoy giving treats, so that’s not the issue. (Though I gotta laugh at the line “who wants to smell like summer sausage”!)

    The problem is that not all our dogs are svelte. My current dog came to me about 40% over her healthy weight, or what would be morbidly obese in a human. The first time I saw her — she’s a border collie — she looked like someone sewed a border collie head on a hippopotamus. She waddled when she walked. She could not get into the car, or up stairs.

    Yet she needed training, and for training, most programs use treats. She was supposed to be on severe diet, only lean boiled meat and mashed veggies. So I had few options. Most treats are delicious to dogs PRECISELY because they are fatty, oily, greasy — like human fast food. Many have grains in them, and she was forbidden any grains.

    Today, after 3 months, she has lost almost all the overweight, and I can give a small number of select treats occasionally. It definitely helps with training.

    Dog obesity is a really big problem, and I do see dogs who are rewarded continually (and often without demonstrating any good behavior!), and the treats are a big factor in their weight problem. I am surprised this was not addressed in the article.

    • Hi Lola,

      The topic of obesity in dogs has already been covered on this blog (see here: https://paws4udogs.wordpress.com/2012/05/14/killing-them-with-kindness/ ).

      Obese dogs can still be trained with food, just as obese animals at zoos and aquariums are trained with food. As I wrote above, “One of the ways in which exotic animal trainers are able to achieve such complex and reliable behaviors is through their use of the animal’s daily food ration in training.” One of the sea lions at Shedd had just recently been rescued from the Bonneville dam and was several hundred pounds overweight. He received just as much training as the more svelte sea lions, because his trainers cut his food into smaller pieces. When a new foster dog comes into my home, he earns his food for good behavior throughout the day. Most animals are very happy to work for their daily food ration in less distracting settings.

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  7. I have a horse that is clicker trained. When riding, Imwill treat for something I like. She sometime just stops on her own and turns her head to me with kind of a dirty look that says give me a treat. She kind of gives,me a snarky reaction. It makes me wonder what I have done to cause that behavior. I have quit giving her treat rewards during riding. I would like to be able to CT while I ride. She doesn’t do this with me on the ground. Any ideas?

    • @Jill – I would say let’s look at antecedents and consequences!

      What’s happening right before she stops, turns her head? I would love to know what your horse might be cueing off of. I wonder if the click has been inadvertently paired with a body movement, like a weight shift towards treat bag? a certain number of steps? or something else?

      What happens when she does stop and turn her head, in the absence of a click? Does she still get a treat? Did she sometimes get a treat when she stops and turns her head, even without a click?

      I hope it is okay to offer this, but feel free to message me if you like – Kelly@BallanceBehavior.com.

    • Jill, I have a clicker trained mule with almost the same problem! Her issue isn’t he dirty looks (though I get them) it is after the click she goes all “GIVE ME THE EFFIN TREAT NOW B!#@H!” and gets ANGRY about taking it from me. We have started remedying this by not working on ANY of the “sexy” training with the clicker but just exercises like Susan Garrett’s “It’s Yer Choice” and Alexandra Kurlands “Grown Ups.” I will also use R- and walk away if she turns mean because if she is going to be a brat I will refuse to work with her. At first this led to temper tantrums of kicking and stomping but once she calmed down and I returned she turned almost puppy-like and appeasing (for a short bit anyways). I have had to be VERY consistent in my expectations of her and what gets a treat and what does not so as to help her learn the new rules. It is a work in progress though. :) (I wish my dog had as much passion for reinforcement as she does!)

  8. My boy is busting out of his Freedom Harness after just 1 month and I am pretty sure it is because I give him too many treats during training. He is on Eukeneuba Restricted calorie diet because he is overweight

  9. I use treats and toys for rewards and I found it relatively easy to use them – it became a very natural, free feeling part of dog training :) I still reward my dog often because I love training this way. I would never stop using treats completely because I like to reinforce things every so often.

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  12. I dunno, but I like to get food treats out of the immediate equation.
    I am just as like to give my dogs random treats — only contingent of things in my environment — I dropped somethgn on the floor, they yoghurt is finished so they get the container to lick out, I’m cleaning up the fridge and stuff is approaching its use-by date and such like.
    They always get lots of verbal praise when they get these treats. So that I can work my dogs with verbal prasie alone. For difficult thngs they get a super reward when training is over. (Ball games or their bones)

    I keep ‘food treats’ and clicker (actually a whistle) only for the initial teaching of a behaviour/skill.

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