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.

21 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.

  13. People want to stop using food so they can believe that their pet loves them and not just the food. Most people believe that using food is using a bribe, or use it that way even if they don’t think of it as a bribe. I am all for food rewards but I am first and foremost for a healthy relationship where both parties are secure in their trust/love of the other.

  14. Actually many ppl do not want to use food simply for the reason that if a dog understands a verbal command and if he is well trained he should perform without a treat.
    It should not make any difference to the dog whether he can get a treat or not.
    How can you otherwise rely on the dog if he will only do something when you have your treat bag with you?
    For example, if you were an office and you ask the dog to bite a person, yet the dog will only do it when you have treats, how would you feel? Can you count on this dog?
    If you are out in a parking lot and your dog ran away, but he will not come if you do not have any treat on you, will you say your dog has a solid recall? On the other hand, if your dog will perform just the same without treats, then you can say your dog is trained and there is no need to use food any more. That is why many ppl want to fade the food reward. It is not because we think our dog loves us more this way, or that we are the boss or anything like that, but it is just a more reliable way to ensure that the dog will perform no matter what and it is an indication that the dog understands obedience is not optional.
    I am not saying I do not reward, but I can reward with a touch, a look, a word, a toy and so on, not necessarily food. I am only rewarding him by letting him know that he has done what I ask him.
    I am not rewarding him with food because I think it gives me better relationship.
    I already have a great relationship with my dog and that is not because I give him lots of treats. It comes from leadership, structure, being a fair trainer, and it comes from engagement training which makes me the most relevant and interesting person to my dog.
    Many people train their dogs in such a way that if they forget to go out with their treat bags, or if they run out of treats, the dog would not show the same kind of compliance.
    This is not true obedience–true obedience is when the dog would do something once you ask him to–doesn’t matter how distracted it is, doesn’t matter how unwilling to do it the dog may be, doesn’t matter what your body position is, doesn’t matter whether you have food or not.
    Until then and only until then can you say your dog is reliable and well trained.

    • RC, I agree with you. GET RID of the *food treats* quickly! There are many, many other things that you can use to reinforce a dog for behaviour that you want.
      Relying for too long on food treats exclusively only teaches a dog that ‘cues’ only count when there are food treats available.

  15. Remembering that animal kept in captivity — especially those limited to the pools and cages, there is maybe not much else that you CAN reward them with. And in those circumstances it doesn’t really matter if you continue to always use food — because you are only interacting with them when they are confined to their pool or their cage.
    With domestic dog you want reliability of behaviours in a wide variety of environments — and not just before dinner when they are hungry either.

  16. I have 5 dogs I use treats on a daily basis. If dog does good they deserves a reward. I use a dog food called frolic, soft so can be broken but not smelly or soggy. Hovpw dramatic is the smelly sausage comment. None of my dogs are fat

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