Holding dog treat in palm
A few years ago I unintentionally insulted my father, Dr. Marty Becker, by giving him some unsolicited advice about how he could better give treats to our family’s combined six dogs. My dad would grasp the treats between his fingers and hold them out over the dogs’ noses. Each time he did this, I was reminded of sharks in a feeding frenzy as the dogs swirled around his legs and made crazed Jaws-style leaps and snaps at his hands to secure their snacks.

From the bewildered and slightly annoyed look on Dad’s face, I could tell my suggestion wasn’t well received. He clearly thought I was nitpicking something that seemed insignificant. After all, he’d given thousands of treats in his nearly 30 years as a veterinarian and lifelong pet lover. He knew what he was doing!

Or he thought he did.

A couple of days later, Dad burst into the house shaking his hand vigorously. One finger was bleeding slightly — an excited dog had leapt up for a treat and accidentally nipped Dad’s hand. Fortunately, the wound was minor and once we had it all bandaged up, he asked me to show him how I give treats, because if there was a better way, he wanted to learn it.

Offer Treats the Right Way

My father wasn’t alone in his misguided treating ways: Teaching people how to offer a dog a treat more safely is a common part of my coaching. Fortunately, there are some common variables that can easily be tweaked when it comes to treating your pooch. The changes are simple but the results can be dramatic.

The first mistake people make when treating a dog is to hold the treat too high. This causes the dog to stand on his hind legs or jump to get the treat. In this way, jumping up is reinforced, making it a harder habit to break in other situations as well, such as greeting new people.

Your fingers are also at risk when you hold treats too high above your dog’s head. When he has to jump up to get his snack, his vision and control over his teeth may be more limited, especially when he is excited about the treat itself — and you may very well find yourself, like my dad, with an unintentionally nipped finger.

So what’s the solution? Simple: The treat should be brought closer to the dog’s face, not waved in the air above him. Hold it just under his mouth or at chest level, where he can easily take it from you without jumping or snapping.

If your dog tends to snatch treats from your fingers, deliver them on a flat, open palm, as if feeding a horse. For especially grabby dogs, keep the treat inside a closed fist, lower it to chest level and then open up the hand and let your dog take the treat from your palm. This will help your dog stay calm and keep your fingers that much safer.

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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