Your dog is on their best behaviour whenever you have a pocket full of treats. They listen to every cue and don’t even blink when a squirrel crosses your path. As soon as you run out of the goods, they’re back to completely ignoring you and wondering when you can finally stop using treats to train your dog. You can teach your dog to work for other forms of reinforcement.
Can I Really Stop Using Treats For Good?
Imagine if you walked into work one day, and your boss said, “I won’t be issuing paychecks any longer. You should work because you respect me and you enjoy working for me”.
You’d be gone by the end of the day, wouldn’t you? You’d have to look for another job.
It’s no different for dogs. If you stop using treats, your dog will look for other sources of reinforcement.
However, you do not have to give your dog a treat every time they do something good. Your dog should not only listen to you when they smell treats in your hand.
Instead of entirely phasing out treats, learn how to make food rewards more meaningful by switching up how you reward your dog.
Be The Slot Machine!
Have you ever played a slot machine? There’s little to no skill required, but the thrill of not knowing whether you’ll get zero, a sprinkling, or a waterfall of coins can keep you hooked on the game. Dogs get a similar thrill when you vary their rewards.
When your dog follows a cue or behaves nicely, randomly switch it up between offering them a piece of their usual food, a tasty, high-value piece of turkey, some verbal praise, a scratch on the neck, or playtime with their favourite toy.
The scientific term for this is variable intermittent schedule of reinforcement. Always reward your dog in some way, even if it’s just verbal praise.
When teaching a new skill, break out the good stuff to help prevent frustration. In certain situations, you should still use plenty of high-value treats. You may also want to give better rewards when there are a lot of distractions in the environment, for example, when you’re at the park with other dogs around.
Using Real-Life Rewards
Always look for new ways to reward your dog.
Let’s say you want your dog to sit politely before you open the door to let them outside. In this case, there’s no need to use food rewards at all. Going outside is what your dog wants the most. Only let your dog out after they’ve been sitting politely for a few moments. They’ll have to wait an additional five seconds for every bark, whine, or jump.
Treats are helpful when working on loose-leash training, but you can also motivate your dog by only walking forwards when the leash is slack. Do keep treats on hand to enhance your dog’s focus, especially while they’re still learning to ignore triggers.