eileenanddogs

Category: Food reinforcers

Tossing Cookies: Delivering Treats and Toys in Dog Training

Tossing Cookies: Delivering Treats and Toys in Dog Training

One thing I notice about experienced trainers is how well they can deliver food to dogs. Usually their hand motions are both fast and quiet, and the food goes just where they intend. This may sound like a minor issue, but it’s not. The mechanics of training are the key to successful, efficient training and a non-frustrated dog.

The way we deliver food in training needs to further our goals. There are times when Continue reading “Tossing Cookies: Delivering Treats and Toys in Dog Training”

Peanut Butter Dog Treats With No Sticking! Another Silicone Pan Recipe

Peanut Butter Dog Treats With No Sticking! Another Silicone Pan Recipe

Pyramid style silicone pan with baked peanut butter dog treats
Sorry I’m not filling my pans as neatly as I did before! That part got old.

I posted in January about making hundreds of small treats at a time in a silicone pan. I had no idea how lucky I was that I hit on a recipe that worked so well the first time. You can check out that chicken-based recipe and some details about the pan in this post. It seems that you need to have enough binding ingredients in these recipes or things get…sticky.

Ever since then I have been trying on and off to develop a recipe for peanut butter dog treats for the silicone pan. So far Continue reading “Peanut Butter Dog Treats With No Sticking! Another Silicone Pan Recipe”

No More Cutting! Making 500 Non-Crumbly Dog Treats From a Mold

No More Cutting! Making 500 Non-Crumbly Dog Treats From a Mold

Best dog treat hack ever! Here’s how to make batches of more than 500 small treats at a time without having to cut them up. Continue reading “No More Cutting! Making 500 Non-Crumbly Dog Treats From a Mold”

My Dog Refuses Food Away From Home!

My Dog Refuses Food Away From Home!

zani-standing-at-st-johns

Don’t panic. This is a common problem and it often has a pretty clear path to a solution. Most important: if your dog sometimes refuses food, you can still use positive reinforcement based training. It is not a dealbreaker!

I write a lot about how we can help dogs address life-limiting fears by performing desensitization and counterconditioning. It’s always important to Continue reading “My Dog Refuses Food Away From Home!”

The Joy of Training With Food

The Joy of Training With Food

Thank you to Debbie Jacobs, who pointed out that many training videos do not include the important moment when the trainer feeds her dog. We need to see more of that. 

Training your dog with food is not only effective. It’s also fun. Do it for a while and your dog may start preferring his training sessions to his meals, even if it’s the same food. You will learn things too, and will enjoy seeing your dog get enthusiastic and attentive.

People who are new to it can profit from seeing what training with food looks like, so I’ve put together a video. I am most definitely an amateur, but I don’t mind showing my imperfect training. I’m not trying to model the perfect use of food delivery—I don’t have that level of skill. But I can give people an idea of what a high rate of reinforcement looks like. I can let them see what a good time the dogs are having. Hopefully, it will help people who are newer to the game than I am.

It seems to be human nature to be a little cheap with the food at first. That’s another reason for the video. I’m showing high rates of reinforcement in the clips. Most people are surprised at first by how much food positive reinforcement-based trainers use. But if you are going to do it, do it right. Using a high rate of reinforcement makes it fun, helps keep your dog’s interest, and builds a strong behavior.

Some people talk imply using food and building a good relationship are mutually exclusive. But the opposite is true. Have you ever heard a new mom say, “I don’t want to nurse my baby because I don’t want her to associate me with food and comfort. I want her to love me for me!”? Has your grandmother ever said, “I was going to make you some cookies, but I didn’t want them to get in the way of our relationship”? Being the magical source of all sorts of good food for your dogs doesn’t hurt your relationship at all. Likewise, finding your dog a source of comfort when the human world is harsh doesn’t cheapen your love for her.

I know, I know. The analogies with the new mom and grandmother are flawed. Those are classical associations and in the case of our dogs, we are talking about training with food. Making food contingent on behavior. Please give me a pass on that for now. The net effect of using lots of food gets you the classical association anyway.

Why Train at All?

Poster: "Don't let anyone tell you that working on good mechanical skills is making yoerself (or your dog) into a robot. Working up good mechanical skills is an act of love.When I first started training my dog (Summer was the first) it was because of behavior problems. Then I found out we both enjoyed it. So we kept on. My next purpose for training was to compete. We competed and titled in obedience, rally obedience, and our favorite, agility.

Zani needed minimal training to fit into my household. She is the proverbial “easy” dog. But she turned out to be a natural agility dog, so we did a lot of that. Clara did need training to fit into the household, and even more to be comfortable in the world.

Today, with my dogs at ages 11, 8, and 5, we don’t have any big problems getting along at home. I’ve trained them alternatives to behaviors that don’t work well in human environments. Things like peeing on any available absorbent surface, chewing anything attractive, and hurling themselves at me. In turn, they’ve taught me their preferences and the ways they like to do things.

What’s the main reason we train now? Because it enriches my dogs’ lives and it’s fun for all of us. Training with food and working together to problem-solve help create a great bond. And training with positive reinforcement is a game the dogs can never lose. We all learn so much! I train things like tricks, agility behaviors, and safety behaviors. For instance, right now I am working on everyone’s “down at a distance” using a hand signal. Oh, and husbandry! Any money I can put in that particular bank means less stressful vet visits for my dear girls.

What Training with Food Looks Like

I compiled a short video that comprises six training clips using food. A lot of food. Each behavior gets at least one treat. Sometimes I use a second behavior (such as a hand target) as a release and I treat for the second behavior too. In some cases when I am capturing a behavior for the first time, or working a little duration, I am giving multiple, “rapid-fired” treats. So in that case, one behavior gets many treats! Sometimes I’ll toss treats to “re-set” the dog for the next behavior and sometimes I’ll treat in position.

Almost all the videos are “headless trainer” vids, but that’s OK with me. I want you to be able to see the dog performing behaviors and eating.

I am using kibble in most of the clips, but if you are new to this, you should use something more exciting. Be generous. My dogs will work happily for kibble now because over the years they have come to love the games. And they don’t always get kibble. They also get things like chicken breast, roast, moist dog food roll, canned cat food, dehydrated raw food, and other exciting stuff.

A small black and tan dog is delicately accepting a treat from a woman's hand while training with food.
I appreciate Zani’s gentleness when I hand her a treat!

The behaviors in the movie are, in order:

  • Zani crossing her paws in response to a hand signal cue. On the latter reps, I am giving her more than one treat while she stays in position.
  • Clara working on one of her rehabilitation exercises for hind end strength. I am feeding in position. I’m giving lots of treats because we are just starting to add duration to this difficult behavior. After this session, I started treating after the behavior, since it’s a bit awkward for her to eat when she is stretched up vertically.
  • Summer targeting my hand with her nose. This was after I had cleaned up the results of my previous sloppy training. My rate of reinforcement in these clips was 27 reps per minute. (Not all repetitions are shown.) That’s 27 cues, 27 behaviors, and 27 food reinforcers per minute. Pretty good for me. I’m not usually that fast, and of course, there are tons of variables. (One is that Summer rarely chews small pieces of food! That helps with the speedy delivery.) If you’d like to see an exercise for rate of reinforcement and speedy treat delivery, check out this video from Yvette Van Veen. 
  • An old video of Zani drilling what I call “Level One Breakfast” from Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. We were practicing sits, downs, and hand targets.
  • Summer filing down her front toenails on a scratch board. If you want to learn about this and other ways to make nail trimming a pleasant experience for your dog, visit the Facebook group Nail Maintenance for Dogs.
  • Clara’s very first try at “two on, two off” agility behavior on an elevated board. (Note: many people teach this with a nose target on the ground, but I don’t include that. I don’t plan to do agility with her and was just experimenting. ) When she gets in the correct position, I don’t mark, but just start feeding, feeding, and feeding in position.

Link to my video for email subscribers.

The one thing missing from the above video is a magnitude reinforcer: a large extended reinforcement period. Magnitude reinforcement is a great consequence for something the dog put real effort into. I give them mainly after agility runs, or when my dogs do something unexpectedly impressive in real life. The latter happened just the other day when I cued Zani to drop a stinky dead snake and come to me…and she did! Sadly, there was no camera running while I thanked her and showered her with all the goodies I had.

Luckily, my friend Marge Rogers has a great video of Rounder, her Rhodesian Ridgeback, practicing his Reliable Recall (from Leslie Nelson’s great DVD). Note in particular what is happening at 0:54 – 1:02. After she successfully calls him away from a yummy plate of food, he gets a constant stream of fabulous food and praise. If you don’t think eight seconds is a long time for food and praise, try it sometime!

Link to Marge’s video for email subscribers.

Other Reinforcers

Using food doesn’t mean I neglect other fabulous reinforcers. I use tugging, playing ball, sniffing, personal play, find-it games, and playing in water with my dogs. All these are great relationship builders too. I talk to and praise my dogs all the time, and have even used praise to shape behaviors with them. But you know what? Praise would be empty if we didn’t have a bond already. Praise gains value only after we are connected.

So Don’t Forget the Food!

Training with food builds your bond with your dog. It’s not mechanistic or objectifying. Working up good mechanical skills is an act of love, and so is using a great reinforcer. These will help you communicate with your dog. And the observation skills you will gain as you improve as a trainer will help you learn what your dog is saying to you!

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

Spray With Caution!

Spray With Caution!

When Kate LaSala told me about her dog’s experience with spray cheese, I knew I needed to share it. I mention spray cheese a lot, as a high value and easy-to-use food reinforcer for my dogs.  So it’s only right that I share this caution as well. I have had a few mishaps with cans of cheese with my two more sensitive dogs, but nothing like what Kate and BooBoo went through. No one can predict when something like that might happen, though, and the effects can be far-reaching. Kate and I both advise caution.–Eileen

Guest post by Kate LaSala, CTC

bookatesmile
Kate and BooBoo

I see a lot of people using spray cheese in a can, or even whipped cream, as a quick, easy-to-dispense treat. It’s convenient, no mess and no smell until you spray it (so no tipping off your dog with stinky food that she’s about to get something good–so important when you’re training!)

I, like many of you, thought spray cheese was the perfect treat for training. When I was training BooBoo to stay on her kitchen mat (to keep from being under my feet when I’m cooking), I decided spray cheese was going to be my go-to reward. I could keep it in the cabinet by the mat and she loved cheese. So we set out on our training plan and for months we were moving along splendidly. She was happily going to her mat, then I’d open the cabinet where the spray cheese was and bend down to squirt some for her to lick. Everything was perfect, until about 1000 trials in when I went to reward her and “POP…POOF”–an air bubble in the can popped right in her face. She immediately recoiled and ran off to hide upstairs, as far away from the kitchen as possible. I was horrified and instinctively grabbed my treat bag filled with chicken and went to comfort and feed her. I needed to undo this. I managed to coax her out of hiding and we sat and cuddled for a while as I fed her. I thought to myself, “It’s OK. She’ll recover. She was just spooked because it surprised her. She’s got lots of padding after months of working on the mat and with the cheese. It will be OK.”

After a while of sitting, I happy-talked her downstairs and she stopped dead in her tracks at the edge of the kitchen, staring at the mat. So I tossed some yummy treats for her on it. She wanted nothing to do with it. She was clearly still afraid. My heart sank.

I tossed her some treats where she was and she gobbled them up. I decided to just let things be for the time being and hoped that overnight she’d sleep it off and by morning she’d be all recovered.

But the next morning, she still refused to come into the kitchen. She sat on the threshold but wouldn’t enter. I let her be, occasionally tossing her treats. At one point, not really thinking, I went to the cabinet–the same cabinet that housed the spray cheese–and as soon as I reached for it, Boo took off again to hide. It was very clear to me now that she had developed a very strong fear (negative conditioned emotional response or -CER) to the kitchen and the cabinet, all because of ONE spray cheese air bubble. My heart sank again. Suddenly the gravity of it hit me, and the concept that neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux had surmised was in my brain: fear is the easiest thing to condition in animals and the hardest thing to resolve. Months of positive reinforcement training had just been completely undone by one bad experience.

Now we weren’t even just back to square one–we were back farther than that, because now BooBoo had a fear response. I wasn’t training something she was neutral to and that was going to take a lot more work.

So, for the next several months I worked on a DS/CC plan to get BooBoo to be happy on her kitchen mat and not show any fear of the kitchen, the mat, or the cabinet where the spray cheese USED to live. (Needless to say, that was tossed immediately and I’m never buying it again!)

I’m happy to report that after a few months of working at her pace, building positive associations and keeping her under threshold at all times, that I was able to get her peacefully relaxing back on her kitchen mat.

 

Spray cheese presented on a finger
The safer way to present spray cheese

So I’ve got two important takeaways. Always remember how easy fear is to install and how hard it is to untrain. One bad experience can set you back months of work, even if the dog had nothing but positive experiences in that time. And, if you still want to use spray cheese (or anything in a pressurized can), I would recommend squirting it onto your finger or letting it dangle from the can before presenting it into your dog’s face/mouth. Food squeeze tubes like these are a great alternative without the pressurized, potentially scary part.

And, just so you can see, here’s a picture of BooBoo happily on her kitchen mat. I love happy endings.

Lovely black dog BooBoo is on her mat and no longer scared of the kitchen area
BooBoo, happy on her mat in the kitchen again

Kate LaSala, CTC is an honors graduate of The Academy for Dog Trainers and owns Rescued By Training in Central NJ. She is also a certified AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) Evaluator and trainer for the NJ Chapter of Pets for Vets. She shares her home with her husband, John and their two rescue dogs, Mr. Barbo and BooBoo. Kate and BooBoo are a certified therapy dog team, visiting nursing and rehabilitation homes locally. Follow her on Facebook for training tips and helpful information. Also, see Kate’s other post on this blog: “Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever? But We Live in NJ!” 

Copyright Kate LaSala 2016

Tricks for Frozen Dog Treats

Tricks for Frozen Dog Treats

I am all about efficiency. You could also say I’m lazy. Also, my freezer is usually stuffed full.

So rather than freeze whole filled food toys for three dogs, I use several gadgets that let me freeze things separately. Then I can put frozen dog treats (of all sorts—just look!) into food toys for a quick treat for the dogs that they can enjoy for a few minutes.

Continue reading “Tricks for Frozen Dog Treats”
Flavors: Ideas for Ultra High Value Treats

Flavors: Ideas for Ultra High Value Treats

A plate of spaghetti with a red colored meat sauce and a pile of grated cheese on top
Spaghetti Bolognese as a training treat? Is that even possible? See below!

OK, I’m going to break the ultimate taboo here and talk about giving so-called “people food” to dogs. 1)Nutritionist Linda Case points out aptly in the comments that even the term “people food” is inaccurate and comprises a completely false dichotomy. I won’t use it anymore, even to make a point.

Most of us who do positive reinforcement training and counterconditioning are already accustomed to giving our dogs some pretty special, high value stuff at times. Tuna, ham, Gorgonzola cheese; most anything fragrant and full of calories has been tried at one time or another.

But these types of foods have something in common, and that is that most consist of one basic flavor.

A friend who doesn’t actually train her dogs, but gives them small amounts of interesting food out of love and as enrichment, caused me to notice how much dogs appear to enjoy complex odors and flavors.

My friend read a quote similar to this one about dogs’ olfactory powers: “We smell ‘vegetable soup,’ but a dog smells each individual ingredient.” 2)In the training community, this quote may have originated in a tracking book in 2010. It was picked up and used by the Canine Nosework folks as well. Author and scientist Alexandra Horowitz writes:

Dogs have more genes committed to coding olfactory cells, more cells, and more kinds of cells, able to detect more kinds of smells….their sense of smell may be millions of times more sensitive than ours.–Alexandra Horowitz, “Inside of a Dog,” 2010

My friend subsequently started making sure that her dogs regularly got–along with the smells–some tastes of safe, home cooked foods that were complex and seasoned. Just because she figured they would like it. She was right. They love it. She calls it “flavors” and all her dogs line up for their special tastes of interesting food, and look forward to a bite in their dinner bowls.  And note: her dogs can all proficiently suck up spaghetti à la “Lady and the Tramp.”

Smell vs. Taste

Even though they have those amazing noses, dogs have a lot fewer taste buds than we do. They probably can’t discriminate tastes nearly as well. But that’s no reason to limit their food to “simple” tastes like we often do, even when looking for high value treats. The smell of complex foods is likely rewarding in itself, and I find it hard to believe, after seeing what complex foods dogs often seem to like, that the smell doesn’t enrich the eating experience.

I remember one day at an agility practice when one of the people brought spice cookies for the humans. The dogs, with my Summer leading the way, went nuts over the odor of those cookies and when offered some bites gobbled them down like ambrosia. Summer has had cookies (intended for humans) before. Mostly simple things like vanilla wafers and shortbread.  The smells and tastes of butter, sugar, and vanilla are not unknown to her. But add in the clove and nutmeg and cinnamon in spice cookies and it was clearly a whole different experience.

Cautions

OK, before my suggestions, here are the cautions. Use common sense about foods that are toxic to dogs. Here is a list:  Foods That Are Hazardous to Dogs.

Also, be careful about foods with high fat content because of the risk of pancreatitis, plus of course all those calories. Highly processed foods full of sugar or white flour (see the fast food entries below) are probably best kept to small quantities as well. They can’t be any better for dogs than they are for us…. High salt items aren’t great either. And on the other hand beware of artificially sweetened foods, which may have Xylitol, extremely toxic to dogs (thanks to reader Jane for this reminder).

Finally, with regard to using these kinds of treats for counterconditioning: I generally avoid making suggestions about things that “work for some dogs.” It is tempting when working with fearful dogs to try every trendy thing that comes along, without buckling down to do the actual conditioning and training which has been shown to help. So I don’t usually say, “It can’t hurt to try.” It can hurt to spend time on things that aren’t likely to work. But I don’t believe widening the search for foods that our dogs love falls into that bucket. It’s part of the basics of training and conditioning to find something the dog goes crazy for.

Practicality

So OK, that plate of spaghetti looks great, and it’s not too onion-y, but how could one use something like that as a training treat?

Remember food tubes? If spaghetti with meat sauce turned my dog on like nothing else, I would be putting it in a blender and dishing it out with a food tube. But there are quite a few “people foods” that lend themselves more easily to training.

A pile of plain tortellini on a green plate.
Plain tortellini are popular with dogs and fairly  practical

Things You Can Cut Into Pieces

  • Cheese or meat tortellini or ravioli, boiled plain
  • Commercial or homemade meatballs
  • Meatloaf
  • Grilled cheese sandwich
  • Whole wheat waffle with cranberries (NOT raisins)
  • Fast food hamburger or cheeseburger with bun (hold the onion, mustard, and pickle). The buns are very soft–just rip off small bites with both meat and bread
  • Fast food breakfast sandwich
  • Pizza
  • Pumpkin or spice bread  (no chocolate chips)

Things to Blend and Put in a Food Tube 

Some of these may take some finesse with the food processor, especially those with  potatoes. They can get gluey. Most of these require the addition of some liquid.

  • Spaghetti with meat sauce
  • Barbecue meat
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Omelettes
  • Hash brown casserole
  • Lasagne
  • Many soups, stews, and casseroles

A Little More Common Sense

OK, before the healthy food posse comes after me, please note that I am not recommending that anyone change their dog’s diet to include these foods in quantity. Just a bite now and then for enrichment, for a very special training treat, or for counterconditioning. And I wanted to give the people who do lots of counterconditioning some ideas for things they may not have used yet.

Also, there are plenty of non-junky home cooked foods. The sky is the limit!

My Summer will do anything for any sort of bread or baked goods. What interesting things does your dog like?

A brown dog is exiting a set of weave poles, with her eyes on a piece of white bread that her handler is throwing ahead
Summer weaving for plain white bread (with the headless agility handler)

 Related Posts

***********************************************************

Photo Credits

Spaghetti image

By Manfred&Barbara Aulbach (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0 ) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html )], via Wikimedia Commons

Tortellini image

By cyclonebill (Tortellini med valnøddeolie og sort peber) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0 )], via Wikimedia Commons

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

Notes   [ + ]

1. Nutritionist Linda Case points out aptly in the comments that even the term “people food” is inaccurate and comprises a completely false dichotomy. I won’t use it anymore, even to make a point.
2. In the training community, this quote may have originated in a tracking book in 2010. It was picked up and used by the Canine Nosework folks as well.
The Secret to Quick Non-Crumbly Homemade Dog Treats

The Secret to Quick Non-Crumbly Homemade Dog Treats

And they stay that way.

The secret is to use tapioca flour.1)A reader has let me know that tapioca flour and tapioca starch are the same thing, and the latter is much cheaper. It can be found in most Asian markets and other stores as well. Thank you Lili! If you can wing it in the kitchen, read no farther. You’re on your way.

This is not usually a recipe blog, but it is definitely a concept blog. The concept here is that lots of high value brownie-type dog treats are crumbly and fall apart in your hand, treat bag, or pocket. Ewww. Especially if they are made with cornmeal, but even with wheat or most other flours.

Tapioca flour (or tapioca starch) is the trick. (It’s also grain free, for folks who care about that.) If it is expensive, you can experiment and cut it with some cheaper flour and see how far you can go. My other trick is that you can use all sorts of leftovers instead of one protein source for the treats, including that you can save the voluminous crumbs that many store-bought treats exude.

Here is the general method I follow for brownies.

Easy Brownies for Dogs

Puree in a food processor:

  • 1 cup raw or cooked protein (see some suggestions below)
  • 1-2 eggs, depending on the moistness of your other ingredients

Put the puree into a bowl and stir in:

  • About 1 cup tapioca flour/starch, or a mixture of tapioca and other flour. You may need more or less, depending on your protein sources.

Mix well. It will stay a little sticky, but if it is too sticky to handle, add more flour.  Toss it between your hands to make a patty and plot it into a greased pan. Bake at 350F for about 15-20  minutes. Longer if you used raw ingredients.

This is what went in mine (pictured below), just to give you some ideas:

  • 1/3 cup leftover meat from fajitas: beef, chicken, even a shrimp
  • a few french fries
  • 1/2 cup crumbs from commercial dog treats: mostly Natural Balance dog food roll and Stella and Chewies dehydrated raw treats, both of which crumble massively
  • 1 tablespoon leftover Parmesan cheese crumbs

The mixture I used above yielded brownies that actually smelled like bacon. I think that was from the smoky flavor of the Natural Balance dog food roll. It wasn’t a terrible smell, and the dogs loved them. I have also made some very mild ones with chicken breast and a dollop of peanut butter. Those even smell kind of good to me!

The very easiest version is to use a can of tuna or salmon. Usually in that case I would use just one egg. You still need to puree it.

Even with the high-priced tapioca flour, these are far cheaper than any commercial treats that are this high value. And so much more pleasant to carry around.

Here’s a photo essay on making my version of the brownies. Hah. These aren’t beautiful photos, and any food blogger would scoff at them. But hopefully they get the point across.

 

Thank you to Anita Gard, who provided the first recipe I saw that used tapioca flour. Her treats are more moist, even less crumbly (they are rubbery), and bake longer. Here is her recipe:

Liver Dog Treats

Ingredients:

  • Equal parts (by volume) raw chicken livers and tapioca starch/flour. For example, about 1 1/2 lbs livers and 2 cups of tapioca flour work well.
  • 2 TB oil

Method:

Put ingredients in a blender/food processor and blend until smooth. Line a cookie sheet (not a completely flat one; it needs edges) with parchment paper. Pour in the goop and spread it flat. It should be less than 1/2 inch thick. Bake at 300F for 30 minutes or until done.

Cool in pan. Then lift the whole thing out with the parchment paper. Flip it over onto a large cutting board and peel off the parchment. Use a pizza cutter to cut into appropriate sized treats for your dogs.

Any More?

Feel free to share your favorite dog treat recipes or methods!

Related Post

The Secret to Filling a Food Tube (a great way to deliver ultra-high value treats!)

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

 

Notes   [ + ]

1. A reader has let me know that tapioca flour and tapioca starch are the same thing, and the latter is much cheaper. It can be found in most Asian markets and other stores as well. Thank you Lili!
Ant-Sized Treats

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.

Related Posts

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2012

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Theme: Overlay by Kaira Extra Text
Cape Town, South Africa