The Right and Wrong Way to Give Dogs Treats

Don't Reward Bad Behavior

Once you've got the hang of how to give your dog a treat, be aware of when and why you are treating him. Whatever he is doing just before or while he’s being treated is being reinforced, so treating at the wrong time can reinforce the wrong behavior.

Your dog may paw at your leg or arm, jump up, whine or bark in order to get your attention. You may assume that offering him a treat will distract or placate him and he will stop. But in the long run, that’s not what happens. Instead, your dog learns that this behavior earns him a reward and he becomes more motivated to continue with the jumping, pawing and barking. A four-legged terror can be created when your dog figures out that naughty behavior equals a treat smorgasbord.

Dogs establish habits through cause and effect learning, and for this reason, it’s imperative to pay attention to when and why your dog is being rewarded. My father was rewarding his dogs when they were vocal and overly aroused. This reinforced their excitable behavior around food. When he started rewarding them only when they were calm, the entire situation changed and the dogs’ behavior changed.

When? And How Much?

Once you figure out how to treat and what behaviors not to reward, it's time to think about when to offer your dog a treat and how much to give him.

Your dog will learn to associate the behavior that precedes the treat with getting a reward, so it's important to think about when you offer that treat. The way you time your dog's treats can unintentionally create some unusual habits for your pooch. If you are consistently rewarding a behavior, make sure it's one that you don't mind having your dog repeat over and over again — because chances are, he will.

I worked with a family whose Heeler would occasionally bring a pine cone in from the yard and chew on it. Her owners would offer her a treat in exchange for the pine cone. Over time, she learned that pine cones could be traded for treats, and she would spend her day dutifully retrieving them from the yard and bringing them to her owners, who would immediately offer her a treat — and a one-dog yard cleaning service was born. Her owners knew that chewing on pine cones can be dangerous for dogs and they didn’t mean for this to become a habit. In order to put a stop to the behavior, they had to change the timing of the reward and teach their dog that her efforts to pick up the yard would no longer be rewarded.

Timing is important when you are treating your dog, but so is the size of the treats. Rewarding behavior with frequent small treats is more likely to be effective than offering your dog a single large treat. Frequent treating reinforces desired behavior, while smaller, low-calorie treats help your dog manage his waistline. A dog can only be given so much food before he reaches his calorie allotment, and too many treats can put your dog at risk for obesity and stomach upset. In addition, at some point your dog will become full and lose interest in being rewarded in this way — which can make it harder to get him to behave in the way you desire. Breaking up a large treat into several pieces that are blueberry-sized or smaller allows for greater opportunity to reward behavior in a productive and waist-friendly manner.

There are plenty of variables to think about when treating your dog. The next time you offer your pooch a treat, pay attention to your own behavior and your dog’s response to it, and consider how you might change your tactics to get a better response from your canine.

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