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When Can I Stop Using Dog Treats?

I get asked this question allllll the time by pawrents.


We all know we need to use treats to help our dogs learn behaviours. For example, when teaching our dog to sit, we use a treat to teach them what ‘sit’ means and reward them with that treat when they get it right.


But how long should we be using treats for?





What’s Rewarded Gets Repeated

It is much better to continue rewarding your dog with treats than to stop rewarding too soon. We ask a lot from our dogs and it’s only fair they get paid for their efforts so they will continue to do the behaviours we like.


Don’t be stingy and don’t stop rewarding your dog too soon for behaviours you like. 


When is the Right Time to Reduce Treats?


Consider:


  • Reliability of the behaviour- is your dog sitting every time you ask, or only 6/10 times?

  • The environment- is your dog sitting every time you ask inside but struggles to do it in the garden? Then maybe you can consider reducing treats inside but continue high level of reward in the garden.

  • How difficult is the behaviour for your dog- For some dogs, sitting is something they find difficult. Maybe they are very active and find it hard to sit still when asked. For other dogs, sitting is easy and comes naturally to them.





Easy Test for if it’s time to reduce treats: 10 treat game

  1. Set out 10 small treats.

  2. Choose a behaviour (e.g. sit).

  3. Ask your dog to do the behaviour.

  4. If your dog does the behaviour, give them one of the treats.

  5. If your dog doesn’t do the behaviour, put one of the treats in your pocket.

  6. Once the 10 treats are gone, count how many are in your pocket.

  7. If there are more than 3 treats in your pocket, keep practising the behaviour with treats as a reward. Maybe even think how you can make the behaviour easier for your dog.

  8. If there no treats in your pocket, you can consider reducing treats.



How to Reduce Treats





1. Variable Reinforcement

It’s important we just don’t stop using treats all together, or why would your dog do as you ask? We all want to get paid for our work- our dogs are the same!

Instead, consider variable reinforcement. This is when we sometimes reward the behaviour with food, other times we reward with praise or a lower value treat.

This can even increase your dog’s motivation to perform the behaviour because they don’t know what they will get for performing it.


2. Behaviour results in reward

We are all guilty of having the treat ready in our hand, then asking our dog to ‘sit’. This is fine when our dog is just learning, but over time we want our dog to respond to our voice and gesture, rather than the sight of the treat.


Make sure the treats are out of sight, in a treat pouch or pocket. Ask your dog for the behaviour, then get the treat out and give it to them.


Behaviour= treat, rather than your dog seeing the treat then doing the behaviour.





3. Downgrading the Treats

If your dog finds something difficult, use AMAZING treats (like JR Pate). If your dog finds something easy, use their normal kibble.


Over time, your dog will start to find the things they once found difficult, easier. So you can then start using a mix of the amazing treats and less amazing treats. Eventually, you will be able to just use kibble. 



Always be careful when reducing treats. Don’t rush it and weigh up the pros and cons.

Is it worth it to reward your dog less but then they start doing undesirable behaviours?

Or is it better to reward the behaviour you like now so you can wean them off the treats later on?

Always remember that what’s rewarded gets repeated.




A little extra note on weight:

Some people worry about giving their dogs too many treats because they are concerned about their dog’s weight and health. 

Make sure you are using good quality treats that are healthy for your dog (you can find a range of these at the Rosy Paws Shop).

And if you’re concerned about your dog’s weight, set out their daily allowance of food, treats and chews at the start of each day so you know exactly what they are getting.



References

Hiby, E.F., Rooney, N.J. and Bradshaw, J.W.S. 2004. ‘Dog Training Methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare’. Animal Welfare 13(1): 63-70.

White, G.A., Ward, L., Pink, C., Craigon, J. and Millar, K.M., 2016. ‘Who’s been a good dog?- Owner perceptions and motivations for treat giving’. Preventive Veterinary Medicine 132: 14-19.

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