The Handler you Hate: Why Training Treats Matter

I’m the handler you hate in dog class. My dog does well; he is focused and works hard to do things right. He gets lots of praise and tasty treats. He is happy to greet you but is clearly my dog. Worse than that, your dog is trying to leave you to come to me. Why? Do I have a special magnetism or sorcery?

Maybe 30 years of training and competing with dogs has something to do with it. Maybe I’m just incredibly lucky to always find the smartest mixed breed, rescue dogs in the country. Or maybe… I pay better with higher value treats.

Photo by Matt

Photo by Matt

I think it’s really just that simple. When asking dogs to focus, learn, and use lots of both mental and physical energy, they should be paid a fair “salary.” The better the treat, the better the work they are willing to do, not unlike us humans! Just because the label says “Dog treats” doesn’t mean your dog considers something a treat. Many of the products you can buy are not that interesting to your dog. They may enjoy the treat as part of the routine you have at home but they might not be willing to do the hard work for them. My dog never gets treats “just because;” treats are earned which increases their value.

The treat must have high value to the dog and because I train daily, I am also concerned about the nutritional value of the treat. What do I use for training treats? I use things that are fragrant, small, and easy to chew, which for my dog means tiny bits of cheese, cooked meat, or egg.

So if your dog is having a tough time focusing in class, doesn’t really care about doing it right every time, or struggles to learn a new skill, consider that your dog may be asking for a raise. Try a training treat with a higher value, as rated by your dog, and see what a difference that can make.

(Note: Thank you to Dr. Kate An Hunter of Carver Lake Vet in Woodbury, MN for this week’s post! Paws Abilities is now offering training classes at Carver Lake. What treats does your dog find the most appealing? Please share your treat tips in the comments section!)

24 responses to “The Handler you Hate: Why Training Treats Matter

  1. What a great article. I have been paying my “gang” homemade high quality treats for years and it works. My guys will do anything I ask of them.

  2. There is a correlation between a dogs favorite treat and their performance of a command. If a dog can see or smell their favorite treat, they are more likely to successfully perform the directed command.

  3. I so agree! My dogs tell me which are their favorite treats, and I never plan on giving up treating for good behavior.

  4. High value treats can be almost anything that your dog views as High value!!!! I have had dogs that would turn themselves inside out for day old pizza crust! and have had others that would turn their nose up at home made liver garlic brownie. Overall summer sausage (hillshire ) has the most universal appeal

  5. Absolutely! Food does matter, and people often forget that it is an important part of relationship building in addition to getting behaviors that we want. At home I often use meal times as training times with just my dog’s regular food. At other times I use string cheese, pizza crust, baby food. Dogs love variety-and even lower value rewards can get great results when mixed with higher value rewards. Great post!

  6. I agree! Many people don’t realize how powerful the right reinforcer is. One of Max’s favorites is hot dogs. I dice the hot dog in small pieces and put it in a container with some other healthy treats. Soon they all smell like hot dog and he happily works for them. I always use the analogy that food is to your dog like money is to you. You wouldn’t do your job if you didn’t get paid, and the more difficult the job is the bigger the paycheck should be. Every living thing needs motivation to do something and there is no need to motivate with fear or intimidation.

  7. I’m the one the other half of the handlers hate because I’m the one with the toy. ;-)

  8. My training buddy taught her Azawakh puppy a fabulous retrieve using vanilla ice cream as her treat. My whippet is partial to lamb lung puffs.

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  10. The highest value treat for my dog is novelty. It trumps the salmon, chicken gizzard, herring, beef liver, lamb lung, venison mix I keep in my treat pouch.

  11. i call bullshit, at the very least. you need to find what is gold for your dog, not what is typical high value. my dog will work for goldfish crackers, no matter what others in class have. once again a “posititve” trainer having very little educational value.

  12. anon, she said …high value FOR the dog. not what we consider high value. high value for you dog is goldfish. high value is different for every dog. i had one that wanted bites of cantaloupe while his brother wanted fig newtons.

  13. But what do you suggest for the dog that isn’t food focussed? The one that would rather sniff all the messages the world is sending than your treat pouch? We have a couple that are totally treat-focussed and have no bother training all kinds of behaviours – and with them in mind I agree wholeheartedly with this article – but another who is incredibly sound and smell sensitive and would rather whirl round on the end of a lead or dash around checking their air-mail than accept any type of treat or toy, no matter what the distraction levels are…?! Liver, cheese, hotdog, chicken, tuna fudge, squeaky toy, tennis ball – all low value compared to ‘the world’….!

  14. puppylove – I had that dog myself. The first thing I did was stop the training. A dog who’s not “ready to learn” is actually learning that it’s okay to ignore you during training classes – and that just adds to the stuff you need to teach (or un-teach). I heard someone ask a really good (in my opinion) trainer this very question once. She said, “you’re dog isn’t food motivated? I don’t buy it. He’s alive. If he wasn’t motivated to eat, he’d have starved to death a long time ago. The problem is that he’s not hungry. Don’t starve him, but it won’t hurt him to skip a meal or half a meal before class. If he’s hungry, the food you’re offering will be much more interesting than if he’s not.” Similarly, I’d add that you might want to tire him out a wee bit before class. Having toooooooo much energy can be a distraction too. That’s why I always recommend training a nice non-pulling leash walk when a dog is tired (they are less likely to pull therefore more likely to do what you want so you can catch and reward the proper behavior). I hope this helps!

  15. Personally I love using treats to leverage behavior out of certain temperament types of dogs, certainly the vast majority.

    But I understand that a treat is an “artificial prey,” and is being used in an “artificial skinner box operant training” environment, (artificial meaning installing behavior that does not primarily utilize the natural innate species specific trait drives (ethology) of the subject under study).

    To me, using treats only to positivity (or to a much less extent negatively) motivate a dog is like playing a guitar with using only 1 string. True professionals use ALL the strings, slap a rhythm on the sound box, slide a bottle neck across the frets, ping the harmonics, bend the strings, deliberately detunes the instrument in the middle of a song, and runs a rift up and down the fret board while tweaking the distortion with his wow–wow pedal… Now that is training… Playing with the music of the dog involves manipulating motivations – sometimes many of them… of which treats is only 1 class or category.

    Depending on the dog, treats will not be useful at all on certain temperament types, easily denoted by the way a target behavior slows (is punished) when treat reward is offered to such (satiated or fearful) individuals. So if treats are out, other mechanisms for motivation will need to be invented “on the fly” in order to leverage “hope of reward” to train these problem dogs. – “Whats in your toolbox?”

  16. I discovered ‘Zukes mini Naturals’ are small, tasty, and easy to handle an the dogs love them! My trainer used them as his preferred high value treat and they are easy to handle and store and keep moist in the reclosable bag.

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  18. I don’t agree that is is all about the treats. I use basic kibble for treats for training, the dogs own food that they eat every single day. Definitely nothing special, and I can get dogs with super attention and focus. And, to boot, my dogs are of all different types and mixes and sizes from a tiny mini Dachshund to a 55 pound pit bull mix and everything in between. I hate to burst the super high bubble this person is in, but they have it wrong.

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  20. High-value *for the dog* is the key thing. My dogs also seem to thrive on “what’s novel,” and so do other dogs. Funny in agility class when my dogs beg another handler for her treats while her dogs beg me for my treats. We make them do tricks for their novel treats. And I’ve learned to mix it up over time. Sometimes diced chicken. Sometimes Charlie Bears. Sometimes Zukes. Sometimes hot dogs. Sometimes cheese. Anything gets old to them until it’s not available for a while. A certain seminar giver once criticized my choice of hot dogs for treats (“poor dog”), but it got my toy-focused dog’s attention at that time where other things wouldn’t.

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  22. Lynda Carew-Jones

    I suppose it depends on the type of dog but I had my springer cross from a puppy and never needed to bribe her with treats,. My praise was enough. I gave her treats just occasionally because I wanted to – that was all. She was a wonderfully happy and secure dog. She was very obedient except when it came to pheasants. Then she as deaf to my calls and commands as she disappeared over two fields!!

    My little rescue dog now of three years old is a different person altogether. I have only had her a few days. She is very unsure and insecure. I have not really begun to train much yet except for house training, which of course is a necessity.

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