Ant-Sized Treats

No tiny treats for my dogs!














Note: there exists research regarding the effects of using multiple smaller treats vs larger bites (aka magnitude reinforcement) when training.  But the basic premise that there exists a size of treat that is “too small” for an individual dog also holds true.

How often have you read the following words? “For clicker training you need some tasty treats for your dog. We recommend treats about the size of your pinky fingernail.”

If you Google “clicker training treat pinky nail” you will get page after page of hits with variants of this advice. Except some of them caution that the treats should be no larger than the pinky nail. Some say half the pinky nail. I saw one that said a quarter of the pinky nail.

If you spend any time on the clicker training Yahoo or other discussion groups, you will read conversations about treat size in which people practice one-upmanship regarding how many tiny pieces they can cut out of a single hot dog.

Guess what? This advice negatively impacted my training for years.

Many people have legitimate concerns about their dogs’ weight. Also, I think there is a bit of sensitivity in the clicker training community to criticisms by trainers who use other methods. I think some people want to minimize the whole treat thing.

At your peril.

Here is my story about treats. Summer, my crossover dog, borders on hypervigilance and does not appear to have been selectively bred for an abundance of the “joy with working with humans” genes. She is very environmentally turned on and it is very, very difficult to get her attention outdoors. So naturally, I decided to do agility with her. An offleash sport often pursued outdoors. In fields often bordered by wildlife habitat or in rodeo arenas loaded with animal smells.

For our first year or two, I didn’t have a private teacher, so we just struggled along. I did learn to use high value treats, but I cut them up nice and small as directed. Still, I doled them out fairly generously.

Summer and I got a great agility instructor after about two years. She encouraged the high value treats. I used higher value treats than anyone else in my class, and doled out more of them. Yet after about another year, I was still struggling to get Summer’s attention. My instructor started talking to the class about giving treats generously enough. I listened but I was sure she wasn’t talking to me. As I said, mine were better and I was giving out more.

Then one day in a private lesson, my teacher remarked that the treats I was using were pretty small. I immediately said, “Oh, those are my pocket treats. I have bigger pieces in the food container that I throw at the end of the sequence.” She didn’t say anything else that week. But the next week she took another look and said, “These are just too small. These are ant-sized treats!” I didn’t ask whether she meant they were the size of ants or or appropriate to feed ants. It didn’t matter. Both were embarrassing. I was still a little resistant to her comments since I always passed out several of the small treats. But I did as she suggested and started cutting up much bigger treats.

Around the same time I told her that I knew of something that Summer loved but I hadn’t ever tried. We had been struggling to get her attention for a year or two, remember. It was baby food. She asked me why I hadn’t used it and I said, and this is true, that I was afraid of “treat inflation” and that I needed to leave something at the top to use later. She kindly suggested I drop that concern.

I wrote about what happened next on a list in March, 2010.

But over the weekend, I tried something new. I took two dogs to our agility lesson. My highest value treats were pieces of commercial meatball, thrown in a food tube at the end of the run, and baby food in the jar for contacts. Even my
“pocket” treats were chunks (not little pieces) of chicken skin, hamburger omelette I made for them (just hamburger cooked with eggs), and hot dog. I know, horrifyingly fatty and gross.

And you know what: my dogs performed with the intensity and enthusiasm of my dreams. Like never before. Boy did I feel stupid. And I probably didn’t end up giving them that much more than usual in terms of calories, since one piece went a long way.

I had been like the proverbial frog in the hot tub, who ends up boiled since he doesn’t notice the rising temperature because it is so gradual. I have been settling for lackluster performance without even knowing it. Last week I would have called my dogs enthusiastic. Now I know better.

Dark meat chicken chunks for agility training

In addition to the very high value food treats, we also started reinforcing Summer in agility sequences by letting her play in water sprayed from the garden hose. It turns out she will do almost anything, with speed and excitement, for a chance to play in the hose. And the speed and excitement have “stuck” in her agility performance.

More than two years later, I still tend to use pretty high value stuff for training, but you know what? Summer gets turned on for training whatever I use. Indoors can be pieces of Natural Balance roll, kibble, goldfish crackers, or even bread. Outdoors, and for longer or more difficult behavior sequences anywhere, it is generally meat, fish, or purees thereof in a squeeze tube. And now even outdoors, my  high prey drive, curious dog keeps an eye on me all the time to see if we might do something interesting together.

Weaving for white bread

This is still a little difficult for me to admit to. It feels like I “bought” my dog’s attention. But either you’re a positive reinforcement trainer or you’re not. And if you are, part of the process is finding out what is reinforcing to your dog and using it. If you aren’t getting great results, you try something different. If I had had a typical border collie or retriever, I might have gotten equal enthusiasm from the start with something lower value. But I had Summer, and I (OK, my teacher did actually) figured out what turned her on.

While preparing this post, I needed some photographs. I cut up some hot dogs into “ninths,” then tiny pieces as in the pinky photo above. The dogs were excited by the smell of hot dogs, which they don’t often get. After the photo session I had a pile of tiny hot dog pieces, so I tried them on Clara.  But when I gave her the treats, even two or three at a time, she acted as though she wasn’t sure she had gotten anything. And this is a dog who will happily work for kibble much of the time. The pieces were just too small.

In some circumstances it seems to be very effective to dole out several treats over a time period instead of one big one. But I think even then, there is a minimum effective treat size. I’ve got two dogs (Summer and Zani) who clearly enjoy a nice big piece of good stuff for a difficult job well done.

I’m sure there are plenty of dogs out there who would be delighted with the hot dog treats I cut up today.  I’m not prescribing a treat size. I’m suggesting that we all listen to our dogs about what they want. Most importantly, don’t assume that the common recommendations apply to all dogs.

For two years now whenever I’m on a list and someone starts talking about tiny treats, I have a knee jerk reaction, and write a semi rant in response. Now I can just refer them to this post.

Has anybody else experimented not only with different foods but the size of the treats? Do your dogs like rapid fired smaller pieces or a big chunk?

Addendum, 8/24/12

Two astute readers have mentioned in the comments some things that I should have included. Pawsforpraise pointed out that you need to make sure not to make treats too large because of the danger of choking, especially in rapidfire situations. Good point. Marjorie M. also mentions pancreatitis and the dangers of too much fat in the diet. Also a very real concern. You can read the discussion in the Comments below.

Both of these points reminded me that I didn’t say anything about the need for balancing out the rest of the dog’s diet when they are getting some rich training treats. Summer and Zani, for instance, only get treats like the dark meat chicken above in one, maybe two (active, outdoor) training sessions per week. And I adjust their meals accordingly every time we train. I figured that to be self evident, but I shouldn’t have. My own problem with the tiny treats was caused by taking something too literally, so I sure don’t want to omit some practical concerns here and send anyone flying in the opposite direction!

Thanks for reading.

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Copyright Eileen Anderson 2012

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56 thoughts on “Ant-Sized Treats

  1. I think you have to temper size with safety. Dogs should have treats that are large enough so that the scent, texture, and whole eating experience is sufficiently reinforcing, but not so large that the dog will choke on a piece of food given in rapid fire, high rate of reinforcement exercises.

    1. Really good point, pawforpraise. Absolutely true and thanks for saying it. It reminded me of some other safety issues I probably should have brought up. I might write a little addendum.

  2. Great post! No small treats for my small dogs and they get lots of them. I pretty much always have their attention. Out on walks they will tend to set up situations that they know will illicit a “leave it” or “come” command just so they can play me. Yes, I too find many dog owners very resistant to giving treats, not sure if this stems from our cultural phobia of fat or if it’s that they feel their dog should be so grateful that they should work for free. I get many comments about how well behaved my girls are and when I mention that I use positive reinforcement I often get a respose of “oh we don’t believe in giving treats.” I tried really small treats, but you’re right…they’re looking around thinking they missed it and are wondering where the “real” treat went! I do have to be careful in what I use though, because one of my dogs had pancreatitis so no peanutbutter, cheese, hotdogs or anything fatty (I don’t think many people realize how dangerous it is to feed much of that stuff and how common pancreatitis can be). I use liver, lung, and cooked meat with lower valued treats mixed in so the really yummy reinforcer is used randomly.

    1. Thanks Marjorie also for the caution about health issues. I started worrying about my photo of the dark meat chicken with skin on it. I don’t want anyone to think my dogs live on fatty foods or that it is OK to feed dogs in general that way! I have had one of my dogs’ favorite treats (liverwurst) out of the rotation for a year because of puppy Clara. But one needs to take care with all dogs with these kinds of foods. Sounds like you have a good system.

  3. This is good. I was reading about your omelette. I have a small dog. I feed raw; so I boil beef heart for treats, chicken pieces or whatever. Those are less expensive than store bought; plus I found that scrambled egg is a wonderful treat for a small dog, without over feeding them.I
    I enjoy your blog
    Usually treats are more what the human thinks is rewarding than the dog.

    1. Thanks Helen. I started making omelettes as a quicker way to make meat/fish brownies. No flour, no baking, made right on the stove. My dogs’ favorites are with tuna or salmon. Again, way less expensive than high quality store bought treats. The only down side is even though I cook them to be as rubbery as possible, they are still fragile. Delivery has to be careful or else I will have a dog wanting to search for crumbs half the time.

  4. Good post. As the owner of a small-ish dog who’s an “easy keeper”, I have struggled with finding the perfect training treats, too. I’ve never discovered how small is too small for Sienna, because I’m too lazy to cut treats into teeny tiny pieces. 🙂 I did once buy some commercial treats (Zuke’s minis) and cut them all in half. That was not fun for me, but Sienna didn’t seem to mind the smaller version.

    Now I don’t worry so much about size, but treat content, since I assume she will be getting half of her daily food intake from training treats most days. I also use Marjorie’s system of mixing high-value treats (bacon, leftover steak bits, cheese, yummy store-bought treats) with a healthy kibble. The kibble ends up getting covered with steak or bacon grease, so it becomes high-value itself. EVO small bites kibble is the perfect size for my dog.

    Of course, then you start running into the consistency problem…kibble is too dry for my dog to eat quickly, and the really yummy gooey stuff is, well, really gooey and not going in my pockets! I tried making my own treats with a recipe that uses cornbread mix and pureed liver. It was so crumbly that I get the “dog is too busy cleaning the floor to learn anything” problem. So I’m back to buying treats, but that gets expensive, so I’m still thinking about how to make my own. Maybe I should just buy a bunch of boneless meat and boil it.

    1. I hear you about the gooey stuff, DIY Dog! And when you have gooey and crumbly together: yuck. My compromise treat that can be cut in all sorts of sizes and doesn’t crumble too badly is Natural Balance roll. Pound for pound it is probably the cheapest of the good quality store bought treats. Another thing that holds together surprisingly well is boiled beef liver, if you can stand it. But that certainly isn’t something most people would be comfortable using frequently.

  5. This might be a solution to your fragile omelettes and a healthier version too. I frequently make ceasar salads and always have left over eggwhites. I microwave them on defrost for 4 min. and they come out a good rubbery texture to feed as treats. Another thing mine love as treats (they actually like to pick their own) are raspberries and blackberries. They are also excellent for preventing UTI’s as they keep the bacteria level down in the bladder.

  6. Well, I’m late to this party…. but, I sometimes use cheese or salami cut intos and then let my dog start at one end and slowly release it to her. That way it takes longer, and maybe she even tastes it a bit! Also, like you I found that breakfast sandwiches or plain hamburgers make awesome agility training treats. It’s like trail mix (several different treats – meat, bread, cheese, eggs) and it’s even more exciting to my dog because I have it in the crinkly wrapper and I eat some of it too! Agility enthusiasm took a huge jump after I went to this style of treats (thanks to my agility instructor’s brainstorm).

  7. Just found you, and thanks for this! I have been instructed to go super-tiny and my dogs are pretty small, but I’m going to play around more with food size and make sure I’m getting the ultimate enthusiasm. One of my dogs is easy–so food-motivated I haven’t found anything too small. The other often will take or leave my treats and is super reactive–he might go for something a bit bigger, although he’s a gulper so I have to watch for choking. Have you ever tried the lick treats they sell in a roll-on deodorant bottle and the dog gets a lick of liquid for a reward?

    1. Hi chiquitar and thanks for commenting. I haven’t personally used the lick treats. I’ve heard mixed reviews, but lots of people have said a little goes a long way. I do get excellent results with putting high quality canned food in a food tube and letting my dogs have some licks from the tube. They all love that. I use Coghlan’s Squeeze Tubes, which can be bought online at REI. They might be too big for your dogs. I’ve also had success getting little containers at the Container Store travel section, but if you do that make sure they are food grade plastic.

      1. Cool, thanks! I use squeeze cheese for Crackers when he’s muzzled because I can deliver it through the muzzle, but it’s hard to control. I’ll have to check out the Coghlan’s!

      2. Another idea is to put the wet treats in a zip lock, zip and squeeze out the air, and snip a tiny bottom corner to press out the treat. Good way to try out the squeeze concept before buying the Coghlan’s and it is disposable rather than requiring cleaning. Perhaps worth a try!

  8. Popped over here from TL. Great post since appropriate treats and size is something I am struggling with my new small dog (13.5 lbs. who is chubby at 14 lbs.). Still looking for a good reward/motivator. Outside a tossed ballworks. Thanks for some good ideas. I always enjoy/learn something from your TL posts and now, your blog looks great too! Thanks!

    1. I bet you’ll find something good. Our secret weapon all time favorite treat is very high fat, but a little goes a long way. Braunschweiger (liverwurst). It comes out of the package pretty pasty but I bake discs of it in the oven until it firms up. That _is_ probably something that one could cut into ant sized treats and most dogs would still do a lot for it. Plus the wonderful bonus of the house smelling for a few days….

      1. Ha! So funny that you mentioned this! I have been using Braunschweiger this week — was looking for a Very Special Reward for eliminating on cue (jumped ahead in the Levels since this 2-yo adoptee came to us only sporadically housetrained) and it is a big motivator (more improvements in 3 days than the last 3 mos.). I’ve mushed up a tiny amount with her wet food and used a that in the ziploc – squeeze bag with good results too. Have also baked it with 1 egg plus 1 c. flour and garlic powder and that makes good tiny hard treats. Will try baking it as you suggest — that should make it much easier to handle when we need it “full strength.”

        PS I inverted the steps in the post above: squeeze out the air first then zip. I expect you figured that out though! ;P

  9. Carolyn, what are the odds of our both mentioning that? Pretty funny. I’m going to try your hard treat version. I was also going to mention for the benefit of the folks who might be contemplating using a tube or squeezed ziplock: if you haven’t done it before, plan to practice a little so both you and your dog can get the hang of it. The first time I used the tubes I don’t remember what was wrong but I gave up and didn’t try it again for a year. It takes a little tinkering to learn what consistency of mush to use, and also the dog needs to get the hang of eating out of the tube or bag. They’ll enjoy learning, though!

  10. I’ve just started reading this blog and it’s so great I went back to read old posts, that’s why I’m writting so late. What Eileen says about tiny treats is very interesting, I’ve always followed the advice about tiny treats but now I’ll have to experiment. I have some treat ideas people might want to try. The easiest is a jar of cheez whiz- just take the lid off and let them have a few licks. It’s solid enough that my dog can’t really dig his tongue in. In the south they sell something called “liver pudding”- yuck huh, but my dog loves it. I slice it about 1/4 inch thick and then bake it at 200 or 225 degrees for about 25-30 mins. It really just dries out and is easy to break in whatever size you like. Eileen was right again when she cautioned to go slow when you first try squeeze tubes, I didn’t do that and somehow taught my dog to really dislike them. I’m going to put them away for a couple months and then try again. OK, back to catching up on old posts.

    1. Hey it’s very fun for me that you are reading old posts and commenting! Where do you get liver pudding? And I’m going to try actual Cheez Whiz, since my dogs like Easy Cheese (cheese in a squirt can) so much. Poor Summer is ever so slightly scared of the cheese squirt can, even though she loves the cheese. Even before she ever heard it pop and sizzle, like it does at the end of the can, she was dubious about putting her mouth close to it. She watches it snake down, then grabs it. The others just suck it out of the nozzle.

      1. I’m really enjoying your blogs, you give really good information in a very friendly, relaxed way and the videos are really helpful and well done. I read alot of dog blogs and groups but hardly ever feel comfortable commenting, with you I do. It must be almost like having a second job so thank you very much.
        Liver pudding is kept in the sausage section in grocery stores down here (North Carolina). It comes in a rectangular block wrapped in wax paper. I’m not sure it’s really sausage, the 2 main ingredients are pork liver and cornmeal. People (not me >g<) slice it and fry it for breakfast. I bake it at a very low temp. to dry it out and also that way it's not greasy.
        I read about the Chez Whiz somewhere ( I don't remember where or when but it was awhile ago) My dog, Rex, is reactive and it was recommended because licking has a calming effect. I guess food has a calming effect in general and licking increases that.
        Rex's reaction to squirt cheese sounds pretty much like Summer's I have to squirt it onto my finger and give it to Rex that way.

        1. Thanks for the info about the liver pudding. They might have it around here. They do have this stuff called Souse that I tried once but it was too pickley or highly seasoned, I forget. I bake liverwurst in the oven like you do the liver pudding. Probably similar. Probably SMELLS similar. Yuck!

        2. Oh, and I’m very flattered that you feel comfortable commenting and conversing here. That pleases me very much, and I’m having a good time chatting with you and the other readers.

  11. Hi, yes if they sell Souse you probably can find Liver pudding in the same place. I’ll have to try baking liverwurst. I cook liver (calf) for treats too, bake or boil and that smells pretty bad. At least chicken gibblets don’t smell bad >g<

  12. Eileen, So thrilled was I to see a topic SO SO absolutely on the nose for what issues I am facing. Lack of drive to work, but lots of enthusiasm for ‘naughty’ behavior. So, I took the hose and the dog, out to our front yard, to the agility equip. Started small, one jump. Such a surprised look when I paired the behavior with the hose reward !!!

    I have read this advice before, and it did ring true then. Why did it take YOU telling it? Perhaps it was clearer? Susan Garrett and Sylvia Trkmann have said similar things; find your dog’s joy !!

    We are still having trouble getting her to do the behavior FIRST, as she’s had the hose play for nothing for so long. Hope it is possible to transfer the pleasure !!!!! Thanks! jan, with Mud, DIz, and Ben, all red cattledogs of various persuations.

    1. Jan, that’s so cool! I started doing it with Summer at my agility lessons. My teacher was totally on board. It was cool because it really taught Summer that there were no shortcuts. The hose was over –> there but she had to take two jumps and a tunnel over <– there first! If she took a short cut, no water! We started out easy, of course. Man, did it ever get her running fast and happy. Just yesterday I practiced a little in the yard. I have a little plastic container that I throw ahead of the dog at the end of a successful sequence so I am always reinforcing ahead and not pulling the dog back to me. I had LIVER brownies in there and she had already had some. But after I turned the hose on, when I threw the food container, she ran to the hose instead. That's how much she loves it. Hope it works out for you. (Also it helps to have a spray gun thing on the end of the hose so you can turn the water completely on and off at the nozzle.)

  13. ps Eileen – hoping you post about Clara’s feral behavior soon. I have a ‘post’ feral dog. Finding it so so difficult to get started introducing him to strangers.

    Yes, we are using CU and BAT and levels and relaxation protocol. Good with the dog part, the human (stranger) part is the real challenge!

    Thanks for your blog !!! jan again

    1. I’ll give it a try. You know, when I started this blog a year ago, I thought I would be writing mostly about Clara and her socialization. I do write about Clara a lot, but the feral part and socialization not at all. Partly because those sessions can be about as interesting as watching grass grow, but at the same time they require such concentration from me that I almost never film anything.

      I’ll get to it. She is SUCH an interesting dog. Thanks for the encouragement.

  14. I raw feed, so limit my non-raw treats. The dogs don’t mind at all.
    I do use a range of tiny to largish (I only have mini Doxies now) treats, but they love that they are never quite sure what treat they are going to get!

    I make most of my treats – fridge dry, in fact. I take a nice dense non-fatty meat, like heart or gizzard, and cut them up – whizzing chunks briefly in a food processor will give you various sized ones – and lay them out on paper plates. I stack the plates in the fridge. Once a day, I rotate one plate from the bottom to the top. After a week, you’ll have nice slightly rubbery but not wet treats.
    Even after a day, they are dry enough to use wrapped in a paper towel in your pocket.

    I keep various containers – up high – in the house, and have different treats in each. I refill the containers with different items when they are empty. In addition to the fridge dried, I also use dried lamb lung, freeze dried tripe crumbles, snack 21 brand dried herring, white fish or salmon fillets, or even kong tots. A new one is dried cod fish fillets, made by the same company on the east coast that makes the lamb lung. All can be left large or broken up small.

    Non-food rewards are something I need to explore more, thanks for the ideas!

    I always used a ‘bait’ bag, since I trained away from home a lot, but am finding it much easier to not keep treats on me now I’m using the cached containers of treats. 🙂 And, if I do decide to step outside for a session, I can always stash a handful beforehand in a pocket. This way, they aren’t always mugging me, trying to get to the treats. Neither boy is very ‘zen’ about treats! 😉

    1. megangiselle, this is a treasure trove of good advice! I’m going to try the fridge-dried treats.

      I use containers of treats around the house, too. This is such a great way to teach dogs that you don’t have to have treats on your person for them to get reinforced. Food can come from anywhere!

      Thanks for the great tips.

      1. I’m gradually catching up on your blog entries, they are ll interesting!

        I love the fridge dried treats, because they are very high value without being high fat.And because I don’t need to resort to liver or other organs, as its very easy to overfeed, for nutrition needs and also digestive oversets.
        You can also whizz heart or gizzards up into a paste and pack them into the food tubes, too. You can get them at Clean Run or online camping stores. If you make up several and freeze them you can then take them outside and use one as it thaws, or pack them into a thermo bag for away from home use.

  15. I just read this post and found it very interesting. With the way my dogs (two standard poodles) gulp down treats I didn’t think size would make a difference — they hardly have time to taste it to say nothing of knowing the size!

    I am also wondering, on the fridge-dried treats how do you keep them around the house? Don’t they still need to be refrigerated?

    Thanks, Sharon

    1. Hi Sharon, For my treats around the house I use a mixture of kibble, goldfish crackers, sometimes some expensive freeze dried treats (Stella and Chewies or lamb lung) and pieces of dog food roll. The latter will last a couple of days just fine, especially if they are a little dried out to begin with. Thanks for the comment! Cool that you have standards.

  16. Sharon once thoroughly dry, fridge dried treats are very portable, and keep for a long time unrefrigerated.

  17. Sharon – once thoroughly dry, fridge dried treats are very portable and keep unrefrigerated for a long time. Not that they last that long, but odd lost bits get found in pockets occasionally. 😉

    Eileen – how are these treats working out for you?

  18. A bit late Eileen but I really enjoyed your blog! My dogs love surprises and for the Parson Terrier I’m training now (10 kilos) I guess I need to watch his weight but I don’t doll out the tiny treats. He loves the bigger treats and so do my other dogs so I train every second day giving the same meal in calories at dinner time.

    1. Thanks, Pat! Sounds like you have a good system. We do have to be very careful with the calories with small dogs.

  19. I’m going to give bigger treat sizes a chance, since my Matilda is so small, I give her just the tiniest of pieces, and she doesn’t seem to mind, but I’m sure she’d love a “raise”!

  20. I have found that it is not the size (aka bulk) that matters — it is the surface area 🙂 Which boils down to “Do NOT cut up into cubes — slice finely!!” Just be sure that the treats are ‘tasty’ 🙂

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