The Benefits of a Treat Pouch
By Beth MacLeod, CPDT-KA, Baypath Director of Training & Behavior
I almost always have treats in my pocket. Even in the house, and especially when I bring a new dog into our home. If I happen to be in my pocketless pajamas, there are treat pouches and treat containers scattered around the house that I can easily get to. Why? Because for the majority of dogs, the majority of the time, there is nothing more reinforcing than a tasty bit of something!
The reason we use treats in most of our training is because behaviors that are reinforced (rewarded) have a tendency to reoccur. And rather than teach my dog what I don’t want him to do, I’d rather concentrate on teaching him what TO do. Given that dogs are nonverbal, the best way to communicate that they are doing the right thing is to reward that behavior.
Having treats in your pocket, and wearing a treat pouch when you go out (or in the house for that matter) ensures that you are able to reinforce all the behaviors that you love when they happen!
A few misconceptions when it comes to using treats in training:
“I don’t want to have to bribe my dog to do something.”
Me either! There are two considerations at play here. One, treats are used as a reward after the behavior is offered. A bribe is something that comes before the behavior is offered. I ask my dog to sit, the dog sits, I mark that with a clicker or a “yes” and then I offer the treat to reinforce the correct response. I don’t present the cookie first and then ask for the behavior. Where people get confused is when we use the treat for something called “luring.” In that case, we are using the treat to move the dog into the position we are teaching, then we mark the dog for being in the correct position, then we present the reward. When luring a behavior, the goal is to only lure a few times and then begin to ask for the behavior without the lure. Since most dogs are experts at reading body language, very quickly that lure creates a physical cue (think, hand signal for “sit”) and the dog no longer needs to follow the food to get into position.
“My dog should work for me because he loves me.”
While that’s a nice thought, it’s not the most effective way to look at how learning occurs. The easiest example to help understand this concept is to look at this from the human perspective. We go to work, we get a paycheck. That’s reinforcing for us, so we show up again next week. While our boss would love us to show up just because we love the work, most likely if Friday rolls around and there’s no paycheck, on Monday we’re out looking for something else to do. Eventually you will not need to reinforce every time your dog sits, but in the learning stage, when we are teaching a new behavior, this is the fastest way to ensure that the dog will want to repeat that behavior again.
“I don’t want my dog to be overweight.”
We all want fit, healthy dogs! The key is looking at what you are feeding for treats. In the house, where it’s quiet and not a lot of distraction is present, use a portion of your dog’s meal for training. When you’re outside, or when the behavior you’re working on is especially challenging, that’s when it’s time to leave the cheerios and milk bones behind and bring out the really high value treats: steak, hot dogs, cheese, etc. Figure out how much you have given your dog in training treats, then reduce that amount from their meal. Treat size is also important. Most commercial training treats are, frankly, too large. The dogs are just as happy with a small morsel as they are with half a hot dog. When giving your dog treats, think about each piece as being about the size of a dime.
“I don’t want to have to carry treats forever/everywhere.”
My response to that is always, “Why not?” It’s no different than always having your cellphone with you when you go out. We have it in case of emergency, in case we need it when we aren’t home. There are so many great reasons to carry treats even after your dog is trained! I love to know that I’m prepared to reward a behavior my dog offers that I like no matter where we are. Or, if something new is coming down the trail that I think my dog might react to, I can throw a handful of treats on the ground and my dog will sniff around to find them rather than react to whatever new/scary thing is passing by us. I have even thrown handfuls of treats at dogs who are coming too close to us that I don’t want my dogs to interact with. Then those dogs are busy eating the treats and I can easily get by with my dogs. It’s always better to be prepared for the worst, and having treats with you is just one more tool in the “be prepared” toolbox!
At the end of the day, we all want the same thing; a loving, enriching relationship with our dogs. We can build that relationship by ensuring that we are teaching our dog to move through the human world with ease, in a way that is exciting, fun, motivating and rewarding. I want my dogs to know that I am “the giver of all the fantastic things!” and given that food is one of the most reinforcing things for most dogs, I want to ensure that I am always ready to help my dog succeed. I hope you do as well!