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The Ultimate Reward: Maximize Your Training Time with Love The Dog!

A big advantage of all our flavors being newly available in strips is that they're easier than ever to cut or tear into bite-sized training treats! To celebrate, we'll be letting you know how you can use your Love the Dog treats in training to get the behaviors - and relationship - with your dog that you both want.


Positive reinforcement training takes the most advantage of treats and food to influence dogs' behavior. "High-value" treats like ours, with their heavy meat content and tempting scents, paired with positive training makes a powerful and effective combination. But can training with treats alone really make a real, long-term difference in your dog? Actually, the answer is yes!


If you've read our past blogs, you're already familiar with the next three paragraphs below, but it never hurts to review... (or you can skip ahead!) 


Just like humans, dogs learn in two ways:

(1) as a consequence of their behavior, or operant conditioning

(2) by association, or classical conditioning 


Operant conditioning is used to train behaviors, such as sit. Dogs learn that performing certain behaviors pays off because we reinforce them with treats, and so they're much more likely to do them again when asked! We can use the treats not only to motivate or reinforce the dogs to perform behaviors, but also to teach them the behaviors themselves. Using a method called luring, we can use great-smelling treats to lure dogs into positions like sit, down, stand, heel, roll over, sit pretty, and many more! Once the dog performs the correct behavior, we reward with the treat.  


Classical conditioning is used to train emotions, which, of course, strongly contribute to behavior. If something that a dog is uncomfortable with is consistently paired with something the dog loves, a positive association will develop. For example, if a puppy who has never encountered children before meets children when he is young and always receives treats, he is much more likely to be happy and optimistic when he meets children as an adult. This is very useful when we consider that we can use food to change how dogs feel, thereby helping dogs exhibiting fear- or frustration-based behaviors.   


As you can see, regardless of which kind learning you're leveraging in your training, a source of reinforcement is required. Reinforcement can be either rewarding (treats) or punishing (fear- and pain-based techniques). However, both operant and classical conditioning are ongoing at all times in the brain, and this is why it is best to grab a bag of treats when you train: a dog who learns via punishment techniques may learn new behaviors, but we risk them developing negative associations with the people, places, and situations involved. In contrast, dogs trained positively not only learn new behaviors, but feel great about what was trained, how it was trained, and who trained them. 


In everyday life, it is easy to get caught up in the dynamic of policing your dog instead of training them. It looks a bit like this: the dog attempts to do the things it wants, and the human must always be observing them, ready to intervene with “no,” punishment, or commanding the behavior they really want. (Unfortunately, this often happens when the dog is in too distracting of a scenario to realistically be able to meet their owner’s expectations). There are at least two problems with this:


Problem 1

Every time a dog performs a behavior, it is reinforced to some small extent – For example, every time a dog excitedly greets a human, the dog is “rehearsing” this behavior for future performance. As many owners know, even if we say “no” to excited greetings, we are not negating this reinforcement that already occurred just because the behavior was rehearsed. In addition, if the dog excitedly greets a human and as a consequence gets rewarding with praise and attention – the behavior has now FURTHER been reinforced in the brain (despite our dutiful “no”!). The dog will quickly develop a strong habit of getting out of control when greeting humans, we will always be saying “no,” and either nothing will ever change, or we may resort of more intimidating methods with the risk of the dog developing negative associations with people entering his or her home.


Problem 2

This dynamic can create what trainers call “cue-dependent” dogs; that is, dogs who rely on their frustrated human’s constant policing to perform appropriate behaviors. They try to access reinforcing things (play, food, dog buddies, and human friends) by just doing what their impulses tell them. See food? Lunge to get it! See human friend? Leap up to greet! The owner isn't part of this equation, entering in only later as a policeman to punish their dogs' "wrong" choices, or to suddenly demand correct ones. This dynamic is a disservice to the human and dog: often the human is put in a position in which they must ask a dog in an excited or distracted state to perform a behavior they have not practiced enough to be able to meet criteria in such a challenging circumstance (example: “Sit! Sit!” even though a human is approaching enthusiastically to greet the dog). Although the dog is incapable of performing the requested behavior, the dog is punished subsequently for this failure they could not control.


So how do you properly train with treats? 


Prevent undesirable behaviors you will not train (or will train later) through management

This prevents those behaviors from ever being reinforced in the first place and developing into bad habits.

Example: “Until I am ready to train my dog to greet visitors to our home properly, I will have him in his crate busy with a treat ball to prevent rehearsal of impolite greeting behavior, as well as accidental reinforcement by visitors who inadvertently reward this behavior by excitedly greeting back."


Train the dog the behavior you want in the context you want it

Whenever you find yourself frustrated by your dog's behavior and tempted to say "no", stop and ask yourself what you would like your dog to be doing in this situation instead. Now you know exactly what to train and reinforce!

Example: “I will train my dog to sit by luring and reinforce this behavior with treats. Then, I will train and reinforce my dog for sitting in the context of guests arriving and greeting him.”


Proof the behavior to the required level of distraction/excitement

Example: “Some guests are more excited to meet my dog than others, and could get him so excited he cannot control his behavior. I will ask those people to be calmer when entering, and will deliberately proof my dog’s sit against visitors who attempt to get him excited by practicing.”


Set your dog up for success in real life

Example: “When we try the new behavior in real life the first few times, I will have my dog at a reasonable distance from the door and on the leash to make it easy for him to succeed the first few times. As he develops his skills and realizes sitting pays off, I will move closer and closer and eventually get rid of the leash.”


Now, simply reinforce the correct choices your dog makes to do what you have trained

People sometimes worry that the use of treats and food means they are bribing their dog. So don't do it! Once you have trained a dog to do a behavior, you only present the reward contingent upon their performance. When something is strongly rehearsed and reinforced in the brain, it becomes a habit, and don't forget: good habits are just as hard to break as bad.

Example: “Once I have trained the behavior, I will not constantly police or cue my dog to perform it. I expect my dog to perform the behavior in the context, and I will be sure to notice and reward his correct choice to practice the behavior.”


A great advantage of treat training is that dogs are proactively thinking about how they can earn their next snack, and you will find they are much more likely to try to make choices they know you are likely to reinforce, instead of just acting on their impulses until someone intervenes.


TRY IT - Training "Drop It" with treats

Here's how to use treats to train your dog to "drop it" (you can alternatively use the cues "give," "out," "thank you," or "off" - just be consistent):

  1. Hide treats in your pocket / treat pouch behind your back / nearby on a high table.

  2. Engage your dog in play with a toy.

  3. Say “drop it”, and immediately following the verbal cue, take a treat and move it right in front of your dog's nose (touch the nose if needed). The treat is a lure to make them open their mouth.

  4. As soon as your dog releases the item they are holding, say “yes” (or click with a clicker), and reward with the treat.

  5. Eventually, you dog will open their mouth when you say “drop it” even BEFORE you present the treat, and you can make the reward contingent upon this good behavior from then on. Say drop it and wait for your dog to release the toy. When they do, say yes or click, and only THEN present the treat.

  • Especially in the beginning, always reward your dog with something they like more than what you are taking away to get a strong behavior and build trust. (In fact, there is never any need to permanently take anything away from a dog when you play this game as a training exercise. Reserve that for when you find him chewing something truly dangerous and, in those cases when you will not give the item back, be sure to reward adequately so he never feels the need to start guarding items.)

  • Practice drop it as frequently as possible and reinforce it often, not just when you really need it. If you only practice drop it when you are taking a novel, high-value item away (like a discarded chicken wing bone on the street), your dog may learn "drop it means I have something really good and the human wants to take it away--- that's my cue to guard my treasure!"


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