People often worry about making their dogs or puppies fat with training treats. In this article we look at training with good food as rewards, and at how you can use your dog’s actual meals as training aids.
Concerns about using food in dog training
Some people look down on training dogs with food.
Sometimes it is because training with food is confused with bribery.
We’ll look at that another time.
But sometimes the concerns around training with food are to do with the terminology we use, and the type of food we think is involved.
And that is what we are going to look at today.
Training with treats
We often regard food used in training as extra to the dog’s meals, even inferior, or poor quality, and not involved in nourishing our dogs or in promoting good health.
It needn’t be this way, and it is partly because of the language we use.
We tend to refer to food based dog training rewards as ‘treats’ or ‘treat training’ . We see mealtimes as a very different thing
Dog snacks versus dog mealtimes
Mealtimes are important to us.
We tend to think of food eaten as part of a meal as intrinsically good. And snacks (food that is eaten outside of a mealtime) as intrinsically bad.
So when we give our dogs treats in training, outside of his mealtimes, we think of these as snacks, and potentially ‘bad’ too.
Training with real food
And in the early stages of creating new behaviors or chains of behavior, we use a lot of food.
It is clear that there are two important precautions that need to be taken when training with food in this kind of quantity
- The food needs to be good quality and nutritionally balanced
- The food used in training needs to be deducted from the dog’s daily food allowance.
At certain times and for certain dogs, this can mean there is literally no food allowance left for meals after the day’s training sessions have been completed!
So when this happens, what are you supposed to give your dog for his dinner? Let’s look a bit closer.
What about the dog’s dinner?
On a natural diet, dogs like to eat when they are hungry, and stop when they are full. They don’t care what time it is.
What many dogs do care about, is getting all the food they require, into a safe place (their stomach) as quickly as possible.
Wild dogs will sometimes have access to a large carcass and are able to eat a lot at once and then not eat again for perhaps two or three days.
But at other times, they will be scavenging or eating small prey items like beetles, worms, and mice, at intervals throughout the day.
Their digestion is perfectly capable of coping with either situation.
In other words, although it may seem strange to you, it doesn’t matter if your dog doesn’t have any dinner, provided he has had enough to eat during the day.
Temporary training bursts
For the most part, these periods when we might need to use all of a dog’s food, or a large proportion of it, up in training are temporary.
Your dog will soon be back to regular mealtimes again.
We use a lot of food when we are doing a lot of training. Often with young puppies. Or when we are focusing on training a new skill to an older dog, or helping him learn to carry out an existing skill in a more challenging location.
Puppies and rescue dogs
It is not unusual for an experienced trainer to use all of a puppy’s daily food up in training for a period of days or weeks. This isn’t cheating, it is what top trainers do to get new behaviors established.
There is no reason why you should feed your dog at mealtimes at all if you don’t want to. It is a very bonding experience for a dog to be totally hand fed by one person.
In fact, if you have taken on an older rescue dog I recommend you feed him all his meals as rewards. Every last morsel.
This will help build a great relationship between the two of you.
Don’t waste the dog’s dinner
Each time you give a dog some food for no reason, you are wasting a dog training opportunity.
And even if you always use mealtime as an opportunity to get your dog to sit, or obey some other cue, that is still a very limited number of opportunities each week.
Dividing his meal into tiny portions or even feeding it as many single pieces of kibble, each as a reward for a behavior you like, is too good an opportunity to miss. Especially if your dog’s obedience needs a little brushing up
What should I train?
What’s that you say? “I’ve nothing to train at the moment?” The chances are that isn’t true.
The truth is, there is almost always something to train!
Is your dog perfect? Can he sit, down, stand on command, moving from any one of those positions to any other, anywhere, in any order? Is his recall bombproof?
Does he consistently look at you when you say his name? Does he walk next to you off lead, past any distraction and around any obstacle without losing his position next to your leg for a second?
If not, you have training to do
Your perfect dog?
And if your dog is already perfectly obedience trained you still have training to do, because an occupied dog is a happy dog.
Teach him some tricks, teach him to retrieve, to select ten different toys by name. Use dog training to teach him to put his toys away.
Use up that food allowance in training.
Teach him to touch a target, heel backwards, play dead, balance a biscuit on the end of his nose. Teach him anything you can dream up. Just keep teaching. He will love it more than you could know.
Avoiding obesity in your dog or puppy
If fed a high carb diet as most dogs are today, many dogs will just keep eating. Nature has not equipped them with an ‘off’ switch when it comes to foods high in sugars and starches.
So you do need to think about quantities when feeding dogs throughout the day, and to take responsibility for limiting those quantities.
Especially when you are using a lot of food whilst training new skills. It is very easy to get through far more than you think you have.
One way to do this is to measure out the whole day’s ration, put it in a covered container. Label it ‘today’ and only take food from there, rather than from your main supply.
If there is still some left in the box at the end of the day, then you can feed it to him in his bowl.
Is it OK just to use kibble as training treats?
We’ll be looking in more detail at different types of food to use in dog or puppy training, in another article. But for many basic purposes, at home, and especially with small puppies, kibble taken from their daily allowance is sufficient.
With older dogs, and when you start to teach your puppy in the presence of distractions, for a while at least you will need more powerful rewards such as cheese or roast chicken pieces.
What about raw fed dogs?
Even if your dog is raw fed, you can still use real food in training. I use high quality grain free kibble as training treats for my raw fed dogs.
But if you don’t want to give your dogs carbs at all, you can use cooked meats like roast chicken or beef, or pieces of firm raw heart.
Training with ‘treats’ is a bit of a misnomer. What we are doing, or should be doing, is training with food. And it should be good quality food.
There simply is no good reason why any dog should have to have all his daily food allowance in one or two large meals.
Obviously it might be a little inconvenient to feed your dog twenty times a day for no good reason.
But if you are training new skills, teaching a young puppy or building a bond with a rescue dog – feeding every single drop of his daily allowance as training treats can be an excellent way of both getting lots of dog training done, and forming a great relationship based on pleasure and fun.
You’ll also find lots more information on reward based dog training in The Happy Puppy Handbook