Are you reluctant to train with treats because of the extra calories? It’s an understandable concern many owners have about positive reinforcement training. But there is a very simple way to avoid over feeding your dog while using training treats. Use the dog’s dinner!
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 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.
Concerns about using food in dog training
Some people worry about training dogs with food. This can be because training with food is confused with bribery. 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.
Training with treats
We regard food used in training as additional to the dog’s meals. The word ‘treats’ implies that the food we need to use to reward our dogs will be inferior, poor quality, or bad for them. Basically, not involved in nourishing our dogs or in promoting good health.
Yet it needn’t be this way.
The blame for these assumptions is often because of the language we use. A tendency to refer to food based dog training rewards as ‘treats’, means mealtimes are seen as something totally unrelated.
Dog snacks vs meals
Mealtimes are important to us as a species. They are a time for bonding, but also a time for nutrition. 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 normal mealtimes, we think of these as snacks and therefore potentially ‘bad’ too. But we can often train with our dog’s kibble, just as well as we could with a tasty ‘treat’.
Training with real food
Modern dog training uses 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.
- 1. The food needs to be good quality and nutritionally balanced
- 2. The food used in training needs to be deducted from the dog’s daily food allowance.
At certain times and for some 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? Isn’t it cruel not to give him a main meal?
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. Dogs also don’t care if their meal comes in one huge lump once a day, or in twenty small meals. What many dogs do care about, is getting all the food they require, 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.
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.
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 first thing in the morning, 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?
For many basic purposes, at home, and especially with small puppies, kibble taken from their daily allowance is sufficient for training.
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.
But much of your training can be done with their daily dinner. In the Foundation Skills introductory dog training course you will only need to use kibble to keep your dog motivated.