How to Reward Your Dog Without Using Treats

Dog Training
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Q. If I train with treats, will I have to carry them with me for the rest of my life to get my dog to listen to me?

A. No. In most situations, once your dog understands a behavior, you will not need to carry treats on you 24 hours a day to get him to respond. While the rewards associated with a behavior should be continued in order for the behavior to remain consistent, the rewards themselves can be varied. In fact, it’s important not to create a reliance on treats when training a new behavior.

Why Rewards Work

Animals form associations between actions and consequences; this influences the frequency of certain behaviors. For instance, a friendly puppy may sit calmly at his owner’s side when a visitor approaches. If the visitor reaches down and pets the puppy while he’s sitting, calm behavior has been rewarded and is likely to recur. On the other hand, if the visitor approaches and the puppy sits calmly at his owner’s side and is ignored, the puppy may get antsy when he doesn’t get attention. In frustration, the puppy may bark. When he barks, the visitor — or the owner — may reach down and pet the puppy. This teaches the puppy that sitting quietly doesn’t work to get attention, but barking does, and he may sit less and bark more in the future.

Since your dog is constantly learning, it’s important to reward desired behavior when it occurs. It’s also important to be aware of whether the behavior you desire in your dog is rewarding enough in itself. If you teach a sit using treats, the treats can be faded once your dog understands the behavior. Yet for the behavior to remain consistent, positive results must follow the sit frequently enough to make it worth the dog’s effort. For instance, if your dog gets excited when you come in the house and you ask him to sit, you should follow through with something the dog desires, such as petting or tossing a toy. You can also offer the occasional treat, but you shouldn’t feel like that is your only option.

Vary Your Dog’s Rewards

I train dog owners not to bribe a dog to do a behavior, like a sit or come when called, by showing the dog they have a treat in their hand. When dogs are trained like this, they learn to respond only when they see a treat. Instead, the dog should be trained to do the behavior first and then get a treat hidden in a treat jar or treat bag. The dog should also regularly be rewarded with a nonfood option, like a game of tug or fetch.

Once your dog learns a behavior, he can be put on a variable reinforcement schedule to get him to respond reliably. I also use rewards other than treats; a dog can be rewarded for heeling by being released to walk on a loose leash, for example, rather than with a dog biscuit. Other reward options are petting, games, going outside, walks, doggy play and food puzzles.

In situations where your dog’s emotions are intense — such as when he is experiencing fear or excitement — the use of food rewards can be useful to help him calm down. Once he is calm, though, you can phase out the food reward and offer another alternative for good behavior.

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