How I Count Out Training Treats for Three Dogs

Thanks, Susan and associates!
Train us or just feed us!

When questioned about possible weight problems from training with food, we R+ trainers always say something like, “No problem! Just subtract the training calories from your dogs’ daily meals and it will work out!”

For me, that’s not as easy as it sounds.

Am I the only one for whom this is a problem? Sometimes I wonder before I publish these kinds of things exactly how many people are as compulsive as I am have situations similar to mine. But then I figure that the world is a big place, so perhaps this will help somebody out there.

Here’s my situation:

  • I have three dogs who vary in size, who all love to be trained;
  • I want everybody to have approximately the same number of reps in training;
  • I hate counting kibble; and
  • I don’t want to use all the dogs’ kibble for training.

And here’s is a graphic representation of the problem:

For each doggie meal, Clara gets a generous 1/2 cup, Summer gets 1/3 cup, and Zani gets 1/4 cup.

Clara's, Summer's, and Zani's meals
Clara’s, Summer’s, and Zani’s meals

So let’s say I want to take out 30 pieces of kibble from each for training. That will generally  let each dog work on one to three behaviors.

Look what happens to their meals:

Clara's, Summer's, and Zani's meals after training treats removed
Clara’s, Summer’s, and Zani’s meals after training treats removed

Poor Zani! It only puts a dent in Clara’s meal, it leaves a halfway decent amount for Summer, but Zani is left with less than half of her meal! That bugs me! One of the reasons I virtually always feed my dogs before training is that I don’t want them working on an empty stomach. And Zani may be littler, but it’s not fair taking away such a bigger percentage of her food!

But on the other hand, if I take away less of her meal, she gets fewer training reps than the other two.

And here I am still counting kibble.

Two-Part Solution

I finally figured out what to do.

1) Switch Zani to smaller kibble. I shopped around and found a comparable kibble with smaller, but not tiny bites. It’s nice for carrying around in my pocket for training treats, too. Here’s what their meals look like now, with approximately 30 pieces removed for training.

Clara's, Summer's, and Zani's Meals Adjusted
Clara’s, Summer’s, and Zani’s meals, training treats removed, after Zani’s food switch

So Zani has the same number of training reps as the others, but still has the majority of her meal intact. (Now Summer is the one who looks a little cheated, but I’m going to say this is the best I can do for now.)

2) Weigh the kibble, don’t count it. I don’t mind giving a plug for my trusty Oxo kitchen scale here. I switch it to grams for weighing kibble, since I can get a little more precision that way. Believe it or not, that’s 30 pieces of Zani’s new kibble on the scale. For me, weighing is a lot quicker than counting.

Weighing kibble
Weighing kibble on kitchen scale

Everybody’s different. Some people would never consider switching a dog’s food just to change kibble size. But this solution works for me because I tend to switch my dogs’ kibble around every once in a while anyway, just to make sure they are getting a variety of the lesser nutrients. So that doesn’t bother me. Plus none of mine has any particular digestive issues (knock on wood).

On days when I don’t plan any training, I can switch Zani back to the old kibble, or switch the other dogs to hers if I want. (Another consideration is whether the foods have a similar calorie count per volume or weight. Mine worked out to be close enough without any extra tinkering necessary.)

Sorry this doesn’t offer anything to the raw feeders, who have a whole different set of challenges.

I would love to hear from some folks with a bigger spread in their dogs’ weights. What do you all do?

Coming Up:

  • BarkBusters: Myths about Barking
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • Thesholds: The Movie!
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

23 thoughts on “How I Count Out Training Treats for Three Dogs

  1. I have four dogs, ranging in size from a Golden Retriever to a Chihuahua. The Chihuahua is on a veterinary specific diet (urinary stones) so I have no choice about the size of his food. I actually soak the food overnight (so it’s big and squishy) and then cut it into quarters. I then bake it in the oven until it’s hard again. It’s a giant pain, but then I get a smaller kibble size so that I can continue to do enough repetitions to actually teach him to do something.

    I do train using the whole meal for all the dogs (because I’m too lazy to count kibble), but I find that if I do want to do an extended training session with the Chihuahua he is good with that occasionally, but he learns better with latent learning (even better if I don’t work on something twice a day… maybe every other day). I feel that the larger dogs do better with a larger number of repetitions on a twice daily basis, but the Chihuahua actually does much better when I don’t work on something quite that much. I don’t know if this is a peculiarity of this particular dog, but it seems to work for what I’ve found!

    PS. I love your blog… I look forward to reading it whenever you post something new 🙂

    1. I knew there was someone out there with a little bitty guy who would share what they do! Folks with bigger dogs, I’d say 50 lbs up, sometimes don’t get what a challenge the food thing is with the tinies. I love it that you have also figured out who does better with what kinds of sessions and how many. I have not figured that out for mine. Thanks so much for your informative and kind words!

  2. Especially for the small dogs, I love using ZiwiPeak. I use a cup to measure out daily amount and subtract the calorie load from the kibble (or other food) and adjust. ZiwiPeak is a fully balanced air-dried raw diet that comes in single protein formulas – lamb, venison and beef as well as a combo fish & venison. The small flat squares of food are super high value and high quality, yet can be broken into very small pieces for training high rate of reinforcement training.

  3. Kibethhack thats dedication!!

    I just came to this conclusion myself, small bite kibble, for my terrier mix, I also use the whole meal for training & stimulation, never feed from a bowl. I actually feed half raw, and scatter feed this in the garden in the morning, then use kibble for the evening meal, purely as its easier and more convenient to use for training/brain games but especially with the better quality kibbles the size of the allowance goes down, poor dogs, currently using Eden (uk) small bite mixer.

    I can get air dried raw but its pretty expensive to get hold of so this is a good compromise I felt.

  4. I am a raw feeder. For me, the most difficult thing about feeding raw was figuring out the right amount to feed. Tank should get a pound of raw each day to maintain his weight, but I’ve found that since I’m always training or reinforcing skills that I need to lower him to 3/4 of a pound. It seems like an itty bitty amount for a big guy, but if I give him the recommended 2 – 3% of his body weight, he gains way too much weight! (He ate about 1/2 the recommended amount of dry when he ate that and he’s in excellent health, so I’m not concerned that he’s not eating enough.)

    I’ve started making liver treats and use them a lot of the time. (Boil liver until it’s done, cut it into bite-sized pieces, sprinkle with a tiny amount of garlic powder, and bake on your oven’s lowest temp for several hours. I’m the most popular mom at agility class! 🙂 Since Tank is a service dog, there are times when we’re out and I don’t want to carry liver in my pocket, so I use Zuke’s and tear them into tiny pieces. I’m going to experiment with dehydrating less smelly foods.

    1. Thanks for sharing this, Cara! I bet you are popular! I’ll never forget the shock when my reserved dog, Summer, decided she was going to hang out with the lady at the agility field who had (human food grade) beef jerky as treats.

  5. I have a 60 lb dog and 10 lb dog. I do usually train them together, so they get more or less the same amount of kibble during training sessions. That does mean that the little one’s “meals” are tiny, while the big guy’s are larger, but that’s ok. I used to worry about it, but she’s learned to live with it, so I can too. And TBH from her point of view it’s never really going to seem fair, because she’s a fast eater while he eats very slowly, so even if they had the same amount of food, he’d still be eating when she’s finished. I don’t count kibble either. Every morning I measure out each dog’s food for the day and put it in a container. Then throughout the day, I just pull from appropriate container, whether it’s for training or a meal.

    1. Sarah, this is so practical. Thank you so much. I know that I overreact to these “ideas” of how my dogs’ meals should be. I’m sure my dogs are probably much more flexible about it that I am!

    2. I’m sure there are many good ways to do this, and different approaches will work in different households. We do something similar as sarahjaneb, which works well for us.

      We have a 25 pound dog and a 75 pound dog. In the morning, they get half their day’s ration for breakfast, including any necessary meds.

      We prepare the second half at the same time and then use it throughout the day for training. This includes some Zuke’s mini naturals. The Zuke’s are split in half for the smaller dog.

      In the evening, they get whatever’s left from the training ration for their dinner. If there’s nothing left, that dog gets a kong with a frozen turkey meatball or maybe just a little peanut butter smeared inside. If it’s the smaller dog, it’s a half meatball in a smaller kong.

      Both dogs seem very satisfied with this. After all, if it’s a kong day, they’ve already eaten a full day’s ration before dinner time. The kong is just to keep them on a feeding schedule.

      We’ve always fed them in two separate rooms as the big dog is a much faster eater and would otherwise stress the smaller one. That way I don’t have to do micromanagement during mealtimes.

      With this method I have to measure in the morning, but I don’t have to count individual pieces and I can judge visually how much is left for the day. The smaller dog has some meds that have to be given with food, so by starting with breakfast we make sure that gets taken care of.

      This also means that if I’m not up to training on a particular day the dogs are hungrier at dinner time, but still fine with the schedule. Since my own energy levels vary a lot, this method allows for that as well. 🙂

  6. I really love your blog, it’s so inspirational!
    I used to raw feed my tiny cat (RIP) who weighed just 3kg. For her I bought dried kitty treats of pure duck and chicken and cut those into even tinier pieces för training sessions. I just found out, since we sometimes borrow a dwarf poodle, that kitty treats is great high value treats for smaller dogs. And it’s size is already clicker perfect, so i suggest going to the cat section and looking for air dried pure meat treats if you want something new to try. They are really low in calories compared to weight.
    Also, I’ve dried tiny pieces of pig’s heart (if the word choice is weird I’m sorry, I’m Swedish) in the oven, which works just as well with heart of cow, lamb and chicken. It’s a bit fatter than dried chicken breast, but oh so popular.
    Something that raw feeder people do over here to make treats is to buy a mushroom dryer and use that instead of an oven.
    Haven’t tried it yet, but it’s suppose to get the same result an hour/ some hours quicker than in the oven.

    1. Thank you for all these great tips, Emma! There are some good dehydrated raw treats here in the states these days; I had never thought to look at the cat varieties. Good idea! And thanks for your kind words about the blog.

  7. I have a 12-lb dog and a 42-lb dog…they get 2/3 cup and 2 cups kibble respectively. While I do some adjusting to their daily amount of kibble based on how much other food they’ve gotten, but I don’t weigh anything or fret over it too. And I too use treats to train everything…everything from regular kibble, spray cheese, homemade treats, store-bought treats and string cheese. My girls have always been very lean, but I don’t contribute it to their food allowance really, I contribute it to the amount of real exercise they get daily and weekly. They get lots of real, make them pant, exercise. Without it, I think I probably would have to count out how many pieces of kibble they both got too.

    1. Good point about the exercise. I used to worry a lot less about my dogs’ food when we were regularly doing agility 2-3 times per week and even when two of them went to daycare. Probably still less than what your dogs get, it sounds like, but it was more than now. The calories caught up with me when we cut some things out without replacement activities. Trying to rectify that.

      Thanks for making a very good point.

      1. Eileen I only wish I could hire someone to count my calories and adjust my exercise regime like we do for our dogs…if I did, I’d be as slim and as fit as they are!

  8. I am also worried about my pups’ increased calories when I am training. It works out relatively well at my house that all 3 (2 of my own and 1 foster) are “medium” sized. Bo and Layla are probably 55 – 60 pounds each with Ziva, our foster, a bit smaller (more like 40 – 45).

    I have found small training treats that are soft and/or can easily be broken in half. We love Milk-Bone Trail Mix, Nature’s Domain Training Treats, and Carry Outs Training Treats because of their small size.


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