Clicker training is more than a mechanical skill. It is a conversation, a dance, between two individuals. Using rewards that take time to deliver or enjoy, will interrupt the flow of this conversation between you and your dog. To shape new behaviors, especially complex ones, you really do need a dog that works with food. If you want treats for raw fed dogs, and you don’t want him to eat kibble, you’ll need to find suitable alternatives that hold their shape when cut into tiny pieces, roast meats are usually well received. You can also try dehydrating or freezing tiny raw meat treats.
Modern dog training often relies heavily on edible treats, especially in the early stages. Finding great treats for raw fed dogs can be a challenge for those that want to feed their pets on a natural diet. A while back, we looked at this interesting topic on my positive gun dogs Facebook group. We were discussing whether or not a raw fed dog poses a problem to someone that wants to clicker train. Some raw feeders were a bit affronted at the very idea raw feeding could cause issues for clicker trainers. But the fact is it can. The good news is that these issues are not insurmountable. And there is no need to stop raw feeding your dog if you want to clicker train. Though you may need to be a little innovative, or to compromise at times.
My raw fed dogs
Our own dogs have been fed a raw diet for many years now. My dogs eat a diet of predominantly raw rabbit, chicken, tripe, fish and eggs. With plenty of other things thrown in for variety.
As I have become increasingly focused on clicker training, I have to confess that raw feeding does cause some difficulties for me. Especially with puppies.
And at times I have to compromise. Part of the problem is the rapid pace of reward delivery that clicker trainers need to embrace.
Modern dog training is fast
Clicker training, or a variation of it, is often used to establish new behaviors, or chains of behaviors. And it is a fast-paced activity. During old school traditional style training a dog might be manipulated into a particular position then praised and petted in that position for some time before repeating and trying again.
When we shape new behaviors with a clicker, the dog is rapidly completing action after action. He is making his own choices, and needs lots of opportunities to learn which choices earn rewards and which do not.
He also needs to be fully engaged with the trainer throughout, and not given chance for his attention to wander.
Treats must be delivered in tiny pieces
In a five minute session of ‘sit’ training, a traditional trainer might only get five or six sits. In an even shorter session a clicker trained dog might sit twenty or thirty times. This means that when we train with food, the size of each reward is an important consideration
The rewards need to be tiny. If we use big chunks of food, the dog is going to be full within a minute or two. And turning raw food into tiny chunks is not always easy.
Muscle meat can be cut up quite small without losing its shape, but meat on the bone, cannot easily be cut up small nor quickly consumed.
Kibble on the other hand comes ready made in perfect ‘treat’ size. So it makes a very convenient training food
Why not use toys and games as rewards instead?
Of course, we don’t need to reinforce a dog’s behavior with food rewards. There are all kinds of other rewards available to us. We can reward dogs with a game of tug, a retrieve of a dummy, ball or frisbee.
We can often rewards dogs simply by giving them access to something they want, like opening the door for a dog who wants to go into the garden as soon as he ‘sits’.
Dog treats that can be delivered quickly
These alternative rewards are all useful and important ways to engage with our dogs. But, and there is a but, when we shape a new behavior, we need to deliver rewards quickly. And therein lies the problem.
It takes several seconds, even minutes for a dog to enjoy a game of tug, or to fetch his ball. He can swallow a piece of kibble in the blink of an eye, and be ready for the next one.
This doesn’t mean we can’t ever use toys and games as reinforcement when shaping, but they can be a poor choice, especially when shaping tiny incremental changes in behavior, where multiple rapid repetitions is the key to success.
Let’s assume then, that we do need to use food, rather than games to teach a particular skill. Are there any kinds of raw food that are suitable?
Raw food that can be delivered in small pieces
What we need is food that can be cut up very small, without losing its shape. And there are some raw options that fall into this category. Some of the organ meats are suitable, heart for example, and kidney can be cut into very small chunks without falling apart.
The big disadvantage here is that this kind of raw food is very messy. Both to store, and to handle. You could train with rubber gloves on of course, though that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But that’s OK, because most people that feed raw are happy to give their dog cooked meat from time to time.
Cooked treats for raw fed dogs
Cooked roast meats are what I use in clicker training when I am looking for a high value reward. Chunks of roast chicken, roast pork or roast beef are very attractive to my dogs.
They still require more preparation and forethought than kibble, but even kibble fed dogs will need higher value treats like these at times. So either way, you are going to be chopping up a chicken breast or two, before your dog is trained.
However, some raw feeders do have a problem with getting their dogs working for this kind of cooked meat.
Dried and dehydrated treats for raw fed dogs
When I first published this article on my Totally Dog Training blog, one of my readers – Eileen – explained that she had bought a dehydrator for making her own treats.
Another reader – Lynn – dries her raw meat to make Biltong (jerky) and then stores it in the freezer to stop it going mouldy These are great ideas.
If you don’t have to travel far, or are simply training at home, you may want to try another reader’s solution
Frozen dog treats for training
Carolan – explains how she got around the problems by using her freezer
I put tiny pinches of her raw mince/veg/egg etc mix into small blobs and spread them out on tupper lids and then froze them. Then whenever I wanted to train I could just grab a tray of blobs from the freezer and go, knowing that it was all her food allowance anyway
And of course, some readers just weren’t bothered by the mess and considered it part and parcel of training a raw fed puppy.
But there are other disadvantages to raw meat treats with some dogs
Raw meat is intensely valuable to most dogs. Many will guard raw food where they will never normally guard anything else. And with raw food, you don’t have the option of swapping it for something better.
Some dogs will snatch raw food in a way that they would never do with cooked – and whilst we can teach them not to do this – it can take a while. The main problem however, with the high value of raw food, is that for some dogs nothing else quite matches up
Raw meat can be quite a hard act to follow
If your dog is raw fed, and you are struggling to motivate him with food in training, you may have to consider your options.
This might mean accepting a degree of mess, at least for a while, and training with chopped heart or kidney. Or it may mean increasing your dog’s motivation for cooked meats, by putting an edge on his appetite, and/or deliberately working on getting him into the habit of training with cooked meat.
Working with an enthusiastic dog
All healthy dogs will eat when they are hungry. Of course you don’t want to starve your dog. However, it is worth considering that dogs are eminently designed to feed at wide intervals where necessary.
Dogs are incredibly adaptable and as well as being scavengers, they are also competent gorgers and fasters, quite capable of overeating at one meal and then going several hours or even days before the next.
However, you won’t need to starve your dog for days to get him in the mood for training with food.
Just make sure he is not being overfed (many dogs are) and put back his dinner an hour or two. Train when he is hungry, for maximum enthusiasm, then practice, practice, practice
Learning to work for a different food
Don’t forget that training with food is learned skill. A habit, that any dog can get into. I have thoroughly enjoyed clicker training with traditionally trained gun dog that had never seen an edible training reward before her tenth birthday.
At first, if I tried to feed her outdoors, she would simply (and very politely) let the food slide out of her mouth. She was far to interested in hunting to think about anything else.
Over a period of a few weeks I taught her to work for kibble, in any location.
She’s nearly fourteen now and still loves clicker training. No dog is too old or too disinterested in food to learn this skill.
Working with a different type of food, such as cooked meat or kibble, can be a similar learning curve
And the more you do it, the more your dog will become accustomed to it, and enjoy it.
Set yourself up to win. It won’t work if you start off with advanced skills in a high distraction environment.
If your dog is new to food as a reward, or to a particular type of food, make sure you start by training some very simple skills so that your dog gets plenty of practice and the food flows freely.
You’ll find you can use lower value treats more often, as the dog starts to really ‘get it’.
What about training treats for puppies
I often tell people that they can use their puppy’s entire daily food allowance up in training without any difficulty at all. There is simply no need to feed a puppy from a bowl when there is so much to learn.
Obviously, this is problematical with a raw fed puppy as a proportion of his food will be on the bone, and he will also need to eat raw eggs, and other messy items.
Because puppyhood is such a golden opportunity for training, and because there is so much to learn, my personal feeling is that kibble may be a better option for many small puppies, with perhaps a changeover at a later date when some basic skills have been established.
Most of my dogs are home bred and have had raw food right from the start. I switched my last kibble raised puppy to raw at nine weeks, but next time I will probably leave it until later.
Of course this is a personal decision and some people will not want to expose their puppy to kibble at all. Others may want to compromise and feed a mixture of kibble and raw.
Some may even decide to switch an older dog back to kibble feeding for a few weeks
For some dogs with allergy issues, this may not be an acceptable option, but for many dogs a combination of clicker and raw feeding, or temporary kibble feeding during the establishment stage of a new skill, may be the most convenient solution.