Fading Treat Rewards

Treats help dogs learn new skills faster. Once they have learned the skill, it's not necessary to give them a treat every time they do it.

My Dog only listens if I have Food

Image by adam hles

Treats are used to teach a new skill, sharpen a skill, and maintain a skill. If you are not working on one of those, then treats aren't needed.

Follow these steps to keep your dog from becoming "treat dependent".

Be generous until the skill is well-learned

Don't be stingy with treats when teaching a new skill. Giving fewer treats or lower value treats is more likely to make a dog "treat dependent" than giving more and higher value treats.

 

Dogs are always forming associations. If a cue (ie Come when called) is super exciting because they get lots and lots of super yummy treats, then they will associate the excitement and reward with the cue itself, even when they don't get a treat. In other words, it's just fun to do it! On the other hand, if they get one treat and a half smile every other time they come when called, they will associate the cue with something BORING. Then, when they're having fun chasing a squirrel and you've got nothing, they aren't going to come when you call. 

Don't rush the process

There is no hurry to fade out treats. Wait until the behaviors are strong before fading. It's a little bit weird that people are in no hurry to fade tools like prong or shock collars but think it's somehow "cheating" to use tools like food rewards. It takes humans 12 years to graduate school, but we expect dogs to know everything in only a few weeks. Be realistic with expectations. 

Keep the treats out of sight

Make getting a treat unpredictable. If your dog gets a treat ONLY when you are holding it, they may not follow a cue when you aren't holding a treat. Tell them what GOOD DOG they are when they get it right and then give a treat from your pocket or off the counter. They will learn that treats are still a possibility, even if they don't see one. They will follow your cues just in case a treat will follow!

Use "Life Rewards"

There are plenty of things your dog finds rewarding other than food. Getting to go outside, having the leash put on, going for a walk, going for a car ride, throwing a ball, playing tug, getting a belly scratch, and sniffing a bush are some examples. Ask your dog to follow a cue before giving access to these rewards. This is how to start using your dog's new skills in real-life situations for good behavior. 

Be more stubborn than your dog is

Follow through when you ask your dog to do something. If you tell your child they can only have dessert if they eat some vegetables, you stick to your guns. Otherwise, they learn that they don't have to eat any vegetables if they are willing to outlast you. Dogs are the same. If you tell them the leash doesn't go on until they Sit and Wait, don't give in because it's taking too long. They will learn that they don't have to Sit and Wait if they are willing to outlast you. 

Keep giving treats randomly

People don't get addicted to vending machines, even though they get something back every time they put money in. People do get addicted to slot machines, even though they often get nothing back for putting their money in. Random rewards strengthen behaviors. Even after you have faded the treats for a skill, give one every so often to keep the behavior strong! 

Enrichment

Dogs used to be bred for a purpose. They had jobs to do like sheep herding, livestock guarding, home guarding, hunting, rodent control, and more. My childhood dogs didn't have jobs, but they were "free-range". There were no fences so they were free to find ways to entertain themselves. Life has changed dramatically for people and, as a result, for their dogs. We don't need dogs to do jobs for us anymore, and urban sprawl means it's no longer practical to have "free range" dogs. (Even when I was a kid, my "free range" dogs didn't live to old age).

Nowadays, dogs are simply companions who share our homes, our couches, and our beds. Thousands of years of genetics do not change overnight, though. The instinct to herd, to hunt, or to guard cannot be turned off because it's not convenient. These are not "behavior problems". They are behaviors by design. Trying to suppress these natural instincts will lead to nothing but frustration, for you AND your dog. It's good to know something about a breed before bringing one into your home. If you can't bear the thought of having a dead baby rabbit dropped at your feet, a terrier is probably not for you. If you want a dog who loves everyone, a guarding breed may not be the best choice. If you don't want a dog herding your children, it will be a whole lot easier to accomplish with a hound dog than with a herding breed.

Most of us don't have sheep, a barn infested with rats, or foxes to hunt. We have to find creative ways to safely meet our dog's needs. The answer isn't always taking longer walks. The more opportunities a dog has to fulfill their breed instincts, the happier they will be, and the happier you will be because they won't be eating your couch!

There are tons of dog sports you can do for competition or just for fun at home. 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dog_sports

These Facebook groups have super creative and inexpensive ideas for enrichment. 

https://www.facebook.com/groups/canineenrichment

Subscription boxes like PupJoy and BarkBox are a fun way to try out new toys and treats. One dog's trash is another dog's treasure. 

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