Madeline’s 1,000 Treat Challenge

Madeline Clark Gabriel of Baby Safe Dog Training has a brilliant idea. She proposes to set aside 1,000 treats and train one behavior with planning and intent. I love this because I tend to be a little unfocused in training and pass out treats for good behaviors, cute behaviors, behaviors I vaguely like, etc. Madeline points out that a great thing about this Challenge is that it will be helpful to people (like me) who are profligate with their treats, and also to folks who are dubious about the whole food thing and tend to be stingy. What if every trainer took 1,000 treats, really concentrated, and spent them wisely on one behavior? I think the results would be wonderful!

Before anybody panics, 1,000 treats is not really a lot. (And nobody is making you do this challenge. I’m a nerd and I think it sounds fun, so I’m doing it!)  If you treat your dog for 50 reps of something every day (which you could do in three minutes if you chose the right behavior), you’ll get to 1,000 before two weeks are up. Depending on the size of your dog and the size of the treats, it might even be less than the amount of food they eat in one day.

Here are the steps, directly quoted from Madeline:

  1. Choose a behavior or skill you want your dog to perform better/differently
  2. Set aside 1,000 treats
  3. Over the course of two weeks, spend your 1,000 treats to practice and reinforce progress

Be sure and look at her picture of the bag of 1,000 treats. It is not as many as you think.

My Choice

Three things synchronized for me and I knew immediately how I would use my 1,000 treats. Clara is going to learn to relax.

OK, quit laughing. Maybe not completely. Relax, um, better-than-she-does-now.

Clara (8 months old) is not relaxed
Clara (8 months old in this photo) is not relaxed

As it happens, that behavior is coming right up in the Training Levels, Level 2. As it also happens, I had a lesson with my teacher just last weekend where she showed me how she would teach it to Clara. So it was the perfect storm. It was needed, I already got some instruction, and now I have some additional motivation.

This video shows what I would like to be able to do eventually, although I think it’s a little beyond this batch of treats. Watch how Reyna the young German Shepherd can go from tugging to collapsing into a puddle of dog on the floor on cue. Wow.


My goals at the end of the 1,000 treats are:

  • Clara can lie down on a mat and immediately be still without trying a bunch of behaviors first.
  • She will be moderately relaxed (not expecting a puddle of floppy dog yet). But no more quivering on the knife edge of expectancy. Things to look for: relaxation of facial muscles, especially in forehead. Slower respiration. Quiet tail. A shifted hip, if it is maintained that way and not just quickly offered.
  • Clara can maintain this moderately relaxed state on her mat for one minute.
  • Optional but hopefully: she can do this without staring at me.

These are modest. Notice I am not going for total relaxation. I don’t know if we can get there in this amount of time. Also, she can already lie on her mat for a minute, or 10 minutes, so it’s not about mat duration. But I want the quiet part to be much more automatic than it is now, and for her to begin to understand that that’s what we are going for, not just a stay. And I want to be able to sit right in front of her and not have her turn into a whirling dervish of offering behaviors.

Clara used to know how to relax!
Clara used to know how to relax!


My teacher did a session with us over the weekend. Because I have tried halfheartedly to teach this previously and reinforced different relaxed positions, I ended up with a dog who flops around throwing her head down, spinning  around, lying on her back waving her legs in the air, etc. Really. It’s on the video. So my teacher, after working with Clara, suggested the following guidelines for us:

  • mark and reinforce her for stillness; the relaxation will follow
  • do not mark immediately after she moves, even if it is to a more “relaxed” position (because of what I have done before)
  • don’t worry if she is offering lots of eye contact for now
  • OK to mark as her tail slows

I would urge folks, though, to read Sue’s section on relaxation, because my plan is tailor made for my dog, and designed with the booboos I have already made in mind. Sue talks about capturing the moment when the “puppet string breaks” and the dog sinks just a little bit more into relaxation. Hopefully I’ll be able to do that after I have let Clara know that flopping into different “relaxed looking positions” is not what I want.


Here is our “before” video, which shows the beginning and end of her third relaxation session, and includes some puppy footage including an excellent start when she was a baby, then one of my ill fated attempts from about six months ago.

I am pleased that at the end of the recent session, while not relaxed, her body is quiet. She is in a “sphinx down” with her head erect and she is staring at me, but she is still and I think her facial muscles are more relaxed than at the beginning. (This is actually what is featured above in the video preview.) And I got her tail to stop wagging! This is huge!

During parts of the session she lay on her side, but since I deliberately didn’t reinforce right away she didn’t stick with it and so returned to the sphinx down.

I hope to have a very different video to show in two weeks or so. I am not sure whether I will finish the 1,000 treats in two weeks, since with a duration behavior my rate of reinforcement will be dropping as I go along. But I’ll try to show what things look like after two weeks, and also at the end of the 1,000 treats if they don’t coincide.

Who else is in? Be sure and look at Madeline’s suggestions for behaviors.  My choice of a behavior is slightly oddball, but what else is new for me?

Thanks for reading, and I hope some of the rest of you give this a try. I think it will be highly rewarding, both for the dogs and the humans!

Coming up soon:

24 thoughts on “Madeline’s 1,000 Treat Challenge

      1. the gsd video disturbed me a bit.
        to me, dog doesn’t look all that enthusiastic about tugging and the cued calm looks exactly that — a cued behavior. notice her ears are still very much on alert, her eyes are focused on where her person is, she gives a few tongue flicks each time after releasing toy. is she really relaxed (as in feeling inner peace) or just offering relaxed looking behavior?

          1. Hey Eileen! Thought I’d respond since that’s my crazy GSD 🙂 I think the difference between the end behaviors of a shaped “relax looking position” and an actual “relax” as I understand it in the levels is what happens if you don’t reward. Does the dog get up and try other operant things? Or does he heave a sigh and disengage? For my criteria, if I cue a “cool it” I am okay if she remains engaged (perked ears, eyes on me) for even a full minute or two. As long as the longer I leave her there the more relaxed she gets. What I look for initially is a lack of engagement in her feet (no “live” toes), softness in her hip and shoulder joints, and deeper breaths. I’d like to hear what your thoughts are. You are always such an inspiration!!!

            Good observations, Reyna IS somewhat uncomfortable because the baby is asleep just off camera so I am moving differently than normal and whispering cues and she is a bit weirded out…she puts up with so much!

            1. You and Reyna are the inspiration! How old was she again in this clip? I love hearing your specifics of what you look for in her body language for the stage of relaxation you want. I was talking to a friend earlier about the whole relax thing, and she said one of the points of the exercise is to know you can take your dog somewhere and ask them to chill and they will know they won’t be called upon for a while (and they don’t need to be calling on you!). They don’t have to be a puddle on the floor (though I so enjoy how Reyna’s legs flop out). I a think you have that step exactly right, especially for a youngster, and a GSD at that.

              I hope to learn what to look for with Clara soon. Right now I am mostly still averting my gaze so as not to encourage the “it must be eye contact she wants!” behavior. We’re getting there. The last two nights she has laid her head on the floor and stopped staring. Thanks for coming by to comment!

            2. That is awesome progress!! Can’t wait to see updated videos! I still haven’t decided what we will do with our 1000 treats. Reyna had just turned 2 in the video.

            3. elizabeth, thanks so much for the extra context and explanation for your criteria. very helpful to my understanding.

  1. this is great, eileen.
    i had to laugh at clara’s behavior from the attempt 6 months ago (sorry, i just couldn’t help myself).
    my dog also tends to offer some behaviors on the mat (also ‘relaxed looking’ behaviors but really not relaxed) so i’m wondering what exactly are you doing in the latest clip? i.e. are you looking directly at clara, are you watching out of the corners of your eyes, are you slowing your breathing and relaxing your body, are you talking to her at all, etc? thanks.

    1. Hi Diana,
      In the latest clip I am not looking at Clara at all. I am making a point of looking to the side. She’s staring because that’s just how strongly reinforced eye contact has been in the past. She can’t figure out yet what else we are doing so that is the only thing left to try. I am definitely doing everything I can to relax myself including slowing my breath. I haven’t been talking except to mark stillness with a quiet, “Gooood” before I treat. Our next sessions were definitely improved. I have to be careful not to mark when she “tries” putting her head down, but she is now leaving it down long enough that I can mark in that position, some.

      1. Eileen have you tried claming signals during your relax sessions? Rex is very reactive and after something has set him off calming signals (from me) really seem to help him relax. Deep sighs and slow blinking seem to be what works best for him.

  2. Great inspiration! Our zen has gone down the tubes. Problem is Barnum is Zen Master when he recognizes it as a training situation, but when it’s just life, we have somehow gotten into a behavior chain. I just realized that part of it is how I have let him become an accomplished treat-bag and hand mugger. So, I am going to spend my 1,000 treats all on Zen, and when we train other things, I’m going to continue my policy of “you can’t have the treat even after I’ve clicked/yessed unless you are at least a foot away from the bag/hand or backing away from it or sitting and waiting.” So, I’m incorporating zen (or trying to) in ALL situations.

    Barnum’s “relax” [heavily emphasize those quotation marks and add in an eyeroll] is just like Clara’s circa six months ago! I decided to take a break from it because I have, using the Levels, managed to turn him into a 1,001 Floor Poses Generator via trying to shape for relaxed-looking poses. Argh. I think my major mistake was not building in duration and the overall relaxed gestalt, but instead focusing on this or that relaxed feature. But, that will have to wait. We’re doing 1000 reps of zen, now!

    1. That sounds like a great challenge! Things that happen after the click are tough. I’ve been addressing hand/pocket mugging, too. Clara is the largest dog I’ve trained (cue giggling from the big dog people now) so it’s new to me to have a dog right there at waist/hand level. Looking forward to your Zen results.

  3. Oh, and it doesn’t matter how life-like I try to make Zen training sessions, even using my plates from dinner after I’ve eaten. After one or two reps, he just treats it like a training session, and as soon as he believes that to be over, he starts sniffing again.
    Now I’ll just incorporate Zen into everything.

  4. I think I’ll give this a try. I need to teach Rex to open his mouth for an oral exam. He’s fine having his lips lifted to examine his teeth but trying to get him to open his mouth so we could see his throat was a battle. I sort of tried to teach him to do this a couple weeks ago but after a few sessions I just kind of forgot. Maybe a container of treats designated for just this behavior will remind me.

      1. Yes more challenging than I thought! About 2 seconds into the first session this morning I realized I didn’t really know what behavior I wanted. It would be fun to teach Rex to open his jaws wide all by himself but I don’t think I’m that good at splitting behaviors and giving perfectly timed clicks.>g< Also I'm not sure the vet would be able to examine his mouth without touching. The problem is that as soon as I put my hands on his muzzle I can feel him tense up. So I guess I'll have to start with counter conditioning /desensitzation- not sure what the correct term would be. I did something similar to get him relax for toe nail clipping. Any ideas or suggestions gratefully accepted.

  5. Professor (3yo intact male basenji) and I are in! Because we both have limited tolerance for repetition, we’re doing the challenge twice. On odd numbered days, we’re working zen; on even numbered days, we’re working crate. He’s ok in his crate, or in Amelia’s crate; the spare crate in the other room is a whole new thing! And I want to be able to crate him at various training facilities, so using different crates is a must. And Zen can always be improved!

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