When Is a Treat Not a Treat?

Those of you who know me know that I do a lot of training with food. Using healthy treats is a great way to get...


Those of you who know me know that I do a lot of training with food. Using healthy treats is a great way to get the behavior you want from a dog while introducing some whole, fresh foods into his diet, which is especially important for dogs that are fed commercial, highly processed food. Treats dont have to be unhealthy to be high in nutritional value, either — many dogs will do nearly anything for some pan-seared liver or boiled chicken breast.

I tell my students to bring great treats to the classroom. At orientation, I give them fair warning: You need to find some treats that can make you more interesting than the smell of that other dogs butt. Its harder than you might think. While your dogs daily rations or regular kibble are great for training at home, they may not go very far to get (and keep) his attention on a hike in the woods, at training class, or in the pet store. In highly distracting environments like these, you may need to bring out the highest-value reinforcers in your arsenal, but remember that what works in one environment may well not in another.

Inevitably, some students show up with a bunch of kibble in their treat bags … and their dogs almost immediately tune them out. Other treats I commonly see that get instantly refused include dry dog biscuits, green peppers, carrot slices, Cheerios, and blueberries.

I know that my students bring these things because their dogs love them at home, and thats great — these treats are good for training in low-distracting environments. But you should save the really good stuff for the high-distraction situations, like training classes. When I approach these dogs with a treat bag full of meatballs, low-sodium sandwich meat, Redbarn food roll, liver, and boiled chicken, I automatically have their attention.

Ill let you in on a secret: Im not magical. Im simply paying $50 and youre paying $10 for the same job. Even if you love your $10-an-hour job (and boss!), economics insists that you come and work for me.

I ask my clients, What is your dream job? We go around the classroom and compare responses. (Hint: Im doing mine!) I then ask, What if I were hiring you for that dream job, but could only pay you in wampum? Blank stares from everyone. This is a real conflict! Practically all my clients say they would stay at their current jobs, which they may or may not like but are rarely their dream jobs, so they could be rewarded with something they prefer: cash. I find that interesting; dog training is often not a tremendously lucrative career, but I do it with enthusiasm because I love it. So the flipside is that, if your dog already really likes doing something, he may choose to do it for lower-value reinforcement.

Anyway, I saw this video on YouTube the other night and laughed hysterically. (WARNING viewer discretion advised. To a 4-year-old, this might play like some sort of horror movie!)

I know it seems horrible, but I laughed because this reminds me of some of the dogs I see at class. The girl with the jar of pickles? She may actually like pickles, but not as a Christmas present, just like the dog that loves kibble at home but not at the classroom. Shes like my Mokie, who loves snuggles and smooches and scratches at home, but acts mortified and unimpressed when these same things are offered in the classroom.

I just love the girl at 1:25, who is happy to receive deodorant for a Christmas present. Shes like some of the Labs I get at class who are happy with just about anything kibble, a butt scratch, a Good boy, a smile. (Ditto for the kid at 4 minutes who is excited about his Mr. Potato Head, which is actually just a potato.) Many dogs, like many of these kids, just decide to make a lot of noise; the kids cry, the dogs bark, and nobody is really winning here.

Much as a gift is not necessarily a present, what you perceive as a treat may not function as reinforcement (making future recurrence of the behavior more likely) in a particular environment. Your children may like mashed potatoes at the dinner table but not a bag of potatoes under the Christmas tree, much as your dog may love kibble at home but not at the dog park.

Be mindful when you are selecting reinforcement. Its not as simple as asking, What does my dog like? Its more involved: What does my dog like, want, or need today, in this environment, at this exact minute?

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