Training With Treats - Is It the Best Choice?

Training with TreatsJust to be clear, I am not a dog trainer, but I am a keen observer and see the consequences of training daily. I see the good and I see the bad.

In recent years, many dog training have adopted new philosophies and techniques. In the past, it was commonplace to see the, unfortunately misnamed, “choker” correction collars, pronged collars, and shock collars. Personally, I still see a place for the correction collars in a balanced method if they are used properly. However, I am not a fan of pronged collars and, in my opinion, there is absolutely no situation that justifies the use of a shock collar. Shock collars are not training collars. I have seen so many dogs become uncontrollably fearful and anxious due to shock collars.

Now the in-vogue training method is positive reinforcement training using treats and no negative feedback. (Does it draw comparisons with the “everyone gets a trophy” society? You need to draw your own conclusion on that one). When I say treats, I mean lots of treats. For example, one of my clients is raising a puppy for a seeing eye organization. In one recent 45-minute training session, she gave the dog (per the trainer) 90 treats. Let’s say each treat is 10 calories. That would be 900 calories, twice that dog’s daily caloric requirement. This overuse of treats may draw a connection to the obesity epidemic we see in our pets.

People see their dog listen when a treat is present. If they have a treat visible, the dog sits in order to get that treat. Subsequently, the dog may only respond to a command when he sees a treat. Instead, have the treat in your pocket or in a bag and, when the dog successfully responds to the command, you then reward him with a treat. That way he is doing a task because YOU asked him to do it, not the treat. Eventually you’ll need to remove the crutch of treats. You need to get your dog to respond to just the verbal commands, especially when off leash or at a distance. If not, your dog’s safety is at risk. Treats can be a part of training your dog, but you don’t want to be reliant on treats long-term.

Is there a better option? The age-old argument is that dogs will respond better to treats than praise. Not so fast I say! Recent research disputes that fact. In a study entitled “Awake Canine fMRI Predicts Dogs’ Preference for Praise Versus Food”, investigators looked at whether dogs preferred food or praise by the owner as a reward. Surprising to some, but not me, it was found that 13 of the 15 dogs in the study showed equal or greater preference to the praise versus food.

This makes me happy because I want the dog to like me for me and not the treat I give him. So, if you want a well-trained dog, it will involve hard work, dedication, and a balanced approach.

Other posts by Dr. Riggs

Dr_RiggsDr. Rex Riggs grew up in Wadsworth, Ohio, near Akron. Dr Riggs is co-owner of Best Friends Veterinary Hospital in Powell, Ohio. He is also on the board of the North Central Region of Canine Companions of Independence, a board member of The Ohio State College of Veterinary Medicine Alumni Society and Small Animal Practitioner Advancement Board at The Ohio State College of Veterinary Medicine.

Dr. Riggs lives in Lewis Center, OH with his wife Nancy, their dogs Maggie and Ossa, and cat Franklin. Outside of work, Dr. Riggs is an avid golfer and cyclist, and enjoys travel and photography.

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