This is the question that everyone asks me when they are training their dog. I prefer to use treats quite frequently at the beginning, rewarding every repetition to build a reinforcement history. But inevitably, the owner grows tired of feeding treats or carrying a treat pouch. They simply want to know “When will my dog just listen to me without treats?”
Remember, rewards do not HAVE to be food, but food tends to be the easiest for most people to offer as a reward and it allows for quicker reinforcement.
So, When Can I Stop Using Treats?
Before I answer that question, I want you to think about this: when does your job stop paying you? I mean, after a while, you know the job, you know what to do, so by that logic, you don’t really need a paycheck, right? That’s how your job rewards you for going to work. If they suddenly stopped paying you, would you continue working for them for free? I highly doubt it.
“But he knows it now, so I shouldn’t have to reward him. He should just keep doing it because I told him to.” Before we worry about getting rid of food treats, first let’s try to understand why is food so useful in training.
Why You Should Use Dog Treats During Training
Food enhances a dog’s ability to learn and also can help a dog overcome fear or anxiety by raising the levels of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine plays a major role in reward-driven learning and helps regulate emotional responses. To simplify: if a dog sees that there are pleasurable consequences for a behavior, then he is more likely to repeat the behavior because it makes him feel good.
Treats are used as a reinforcer when training your dog. A reinforcer is something that causes the frequency of an action (or inaction) to increase. For example, every time you reinforce a sit position with a reward, you are increasing the likelihood that your dog will sit more often. The vast majority of dogs find that the reward of choice is food/treats.
Treats are easy to give to your dog quickly when they perform a desired behavior. This means you can have a high number of repetitions in a short amount of time. This is especially important when first introducing a cue to your dog.
“When will my dog listen to me without treats?”
When can I stop using treats when training my dog? The short answer: You don’t. If your job stopped offering you a paycheck, you’d quit, as there’s no reason for you to work. You can and will use FEWER treats, and you will reward less frequently, but it never truly stops. I understand if you’re worried about using treats when training your dog. You don’t want to always have to rely on having a treat in your pocket so your dog behaves.
When you first start training, you’ll be rewarding your dog with a training treat for every repetition. But as you progress, you can start incorporating real-life rewards (such as allowing them to sniff on a walk, playtime with a toy, etc.). However, occasionally you’ll still need to pay your dog for a job well done with a treat, so they continue to see the value in responding to your cues.
“But I Don’t Want My Dog To Get Fat!”
It’s important to monitor your dog’s caloric intake when you start a training program, as dogs can gain weight rather quickly! A general rule of thumb is that training treats should make up no more than 10% of your dog’s daily food intake.
One of the best ways to prevent weight gain is to use your dog’s regular food as a reward. Most dogs will work for their kibble if they aren’t in an overly distracting environment, so use their regular food as much as possible for training.
You can also reduce the amount of their regular meals to balance out the increase in treats. If you know that you are going to be training, reduce their meal so they don’t overdo it on calories. Just be aware that your dog needs a complete and balanced diet. Training treats on their own are not sufficient for your dog to thrive.
Phasing Out the Use of Food Treats
While food should certainly be used as a reward for a dog that is food-motivated, rewards such as toys, praise, and play can be just as powerful if a dog happens to be motivated by them. Any reward which motivates a dog to learn is a great training tool because learning not only makes a dog more confident, it also increases the human/animal bond.
The treats used to motivate your dog to learn must be of high value to him until he is responding reliably. Once this happens, the high-value treat can be used intermittently, meaning that your dog doesn’t always get rewarded with food every time he responds to a cue, but with an alternate reward that might be of lesser value to him, such as a toy. Since your dog won’t know when a treat is coming, he will continue to respond in anticipation that he will eventually get the treat.
In conclusion, if a dog sees that there is a pleasurable consequence for a behavior, then she is more likely to continue the behavior because doing so makes her feel good. (i.e. “what gets rewarded gets repeated”) And, when a person is attached to that good feeling, it is more likely that the dog will listen to whatever that person asks of them. This is why I will never understand why people choose to train their dogs using force and punishment. I want dogs to do the things I want them to do because they want to, not because I have forced them to do it.
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