Swapping treats for other rewards

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Written by Nicole Ellis (CPDT-KA)

Worried about your dog's weight? We have tips on phasing out treats as rewards.

Training your pet can be so much fun, but is your pet getting too many treats? You can worry less about this by giving healthy snacks as treats as well as phasing out the treats entirely. Let's talk about how we can do this.

To start with, some dogs love working for bits of healthy foods too. While your pet may not like everything on this list there's a wide variety so you can try different ones until you find their favorites. I suggest giving a mixture between the healthy options and your regular treats - it’s like the lottery where they don’t know what they are going to get as a reward. This way you can save your highest value training treats (their very most favorites) for the more difficult sessions and perfect training moments when they've earned a really special reward.

Healthy veggie/fruit suggestions:

  • Blueberries
  • Watermelon
  • Sweet potato
  • Pumpkin
  • Apples
  • Green beans
  • Cantaloupe
  • Bananas (great for a treat, but due to their high sugar content should not be part of the regular diet)
  • Carrots
  • Mango
  • Pineapple
  • Raspberries

If you have a picky dog that isn’t thrilled about healthy snacks, you can work on reducing the number of times per session that you reward with a treat.

When training a skill that your dog already knows - we'll use 'sit' as an example - start mixing it up so your dog's reward bounces between verbal praise and edible treats. Slowly add in more behaviors with verbal praise instead of treats. Don’t go too fast with this as your dog may think they are doing something wrong when they don't earn a treat. Some dogs thrive of verbal praise and affection - you might find this is a great reward for your dog.

Here’s an example of fading out a treat:

  1. Ask for a sit
  2. If you get a solid sit, say 'good boy!’ And give a treat. Then release your dog
  3. Ask for a sit again
  4. If you get a solid sit, say 'good boy!' in a happy, enthusiastic tone. Then release your dog
  5. Now on the next sit, give a treat.
  6. Slowly mix it up so it’s not a pattern - rep #1 gets a treat, reps #2-3, no treat, rep #4 gets a treat. You want it to seem random to the dog so he can't predict treats v praise.
  7. In no time at all, you’ll see your pup is still excited to work and train - but he'll be eating fewer treats which will also help keep him or her motivated during training.

When you're asking a new requirement to a skill, such as adding distance or duration, like holding a sit longer than normal, always be sure to reward these bigger steps with a treat. Your dog will appreciate it and he'll be motivated to make that extra effort for you.

Happy training!

 Rossi and Treats

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  • Nicole Ellis