In my Beginning Obedience Level 1 class, on the last night I always teach some simple exercises to "wean dogs off treats" (the technical term is "reducing reinforcers" or "substituting reinforcers.") I'd always say this with a disclaimer, something like "I'm giving you this information not because I think that your dogs are necessarily ready for it, but because I know that some of you are going to jump the gun and start doing it anyway! So I'd like for you to do it correctly!" Then I'd add a long spiel about how "My next puppy is going to be getting treat reinforcers for a whole year, probably."
I like a very prolonged use of reinforcers, because it tends to make obedience just second-nature to a dog. They're so used to obeying and responding that they just do it out of habit. They don't make a decision about whether to respond or not. They just respond. There's no "he only does it if he wants to." Because they ALWAYS want to. They're conditioned to want to.
You should never start phasing out treats until your dog is performing 100% of the time flawlessly -- this means your dog is responding reliably, quickly, and with style. Once you phase out treats, a behavior will never get better -- it will basically be "locked in" at the current level it is now. So if your dog "sometimes" lies down on command, and you phase out treats, then you will forever have a dog who "sometimes" lies down on command (unless you go back later, and start over. I can help you with this, if you want a clean slate!)
Fast forward to my new pup Halo. At five months, we've worked through almost 3 dozen formal Rally Obedience moves. We're both at the point where we're naturally starting to work without treats. Sometimes I give a few commands without even thinking about a treat, and she responds without even thinking about a treat. (Some of my clients do this too. Often they just fade the treats away naturally, without thinking much about it. It's a natural, organic process. It seems to me that the less the client is concerned with "how quickly do we get rid of treats," the more natural and rapid the process is.) With me and Halo, I started noticing something -- I was no longer really paying attention to the treats, and was frequently dropping treats by accident. We'd be heeling along and I'd accidentally drop a few treats on the ground. Halo definitely saw and heard them (if you watch the videos carefully, you can see/hear it too.) But she'd IGNORE them. The work was becoming intrinsically valuable to her. This was a sign that she didn't really need as many treats anymore. So now I had to come up with a plan.
The first thing that I wanted to keep in mind was her age. Five months is the age when most puppies stop being completely focused and dependent on their owner. The outside world is getting more and more interesting. The puppy wants to explore and doesn't need the handler so much anymore. Developmentally, this is a terrible time to reduce treats. Knowing this, I decided to start out by only reducing treats in low-distraction areas.
Besides general puppy cognitive development, there is also the individual puppy's temperament. Some puppies can cope with reduced rewards better than others. Some get frustrated. Some just give up and wander away. Halo has a soft and sweet disposition. A lot of my training with her has been focused on confidence-building. Suddenly taking away the treats can simply shatter a sensitive dog's confidence -- they think that they're suddenly doing the exercises wrong, or that something else is the matter. I didn't want this to happen to Halo! But knowing that it was a real risk, I wanted to show her that yes, she IS still doing the right thing, and I AM still happy with her, even if I don't give her a cookie.
Next, remember how I mentioned that you should continue to use treats/rewards until you're sure that the dog absolutely KNOWS what to do, and the behavior is reliable, fast, and just how you like it? Yes -- I need to factor that in, too!
So, here are the training goals in a nutshell for introducing "weaning off treats" to a 5-month-old.
Start where there aren't any distractions, so she won't be reinforced by the environment for making the wrong choice.
Specifically let her know that just because she isn't getting a cookie, doesn't mean she's doing it wrong.
I wanted to actually show her what it "looks like" to work and interact with just me, no treats. That's the point of the above video. As you can see, the whole thing is very gentle and joyful. (And I promise, no trainer alive would have corrected/interrupted that jump-up that she does after she does her "Down." That's exactly the kind of joyful working that you absolutely want to keep -- keep the joy, you can get rid of the jump-up later.)
She knows a lot of "things," but there's only a few that I'd consider good enough and fluent enough for me to be absolutely satisfied with. She's very strong with: 1) Halt/Sit. 2) "Down" in front position. 3) Right turns. 4) Right About Turns. 5) Forward heeling for four steps. I'd like a little more strength, a little more confidence for all her left-turn work and her left and right finishes -- even though these are pretty good now, I think they can be even a little bit better. She's weak on finding "front" position and she's weak on "stay" and very weak on "Moving Down" and "Fast Forward from Halt." So I'll consider weaning off treats for Halt/Sit, Down in front position, Right turns, Right About Turns, and forward heeling for four or fewer steps. Everything else gets treats until it's juuuuuuust perfect!
In the coming weeks you will see more exercises like this. We're also beginning what's called "Ring Prep" -- preparing a dog for the competition ring where there are no treats allowed, none, ever. Not even in your pocket.
Still with me? Why don't you give that "Handler Engagement" exercise a try! If you know there's no way that your dog can do it for 60 seconds, then just make an easier goal for yourself. Set a goal of 15 seconds. Once you achieve that, then go for 30 seconds and it shouldn't take long for you to work up to the full minute! Give it a try! Let me know if I can help!