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Training Treats and Jackpots

I'm commonly asked "What kind of training treats do you recommend?" Here's the "long" answer, that I wish I had time to explain in detail to everybody!

The first guideline for treats is that they should be very tiny. Your dog should be able to suck them up quickly without much chewing. Quick reinforcement leads to more efficient training! You don't want to be waiting around for your dog to snack on a giant Milk-bone after every sit or down. (Also, this would cause your dog to gain pounds and pounds!)

I usually cut up treats so they're about the size of my pinky fingernail.

You should always know what your dogs favorite treats are, ranked by preference. There is slight variation among dogs (some dogs love crunchy cold carrots for example; others turn up their noses) but in general the "favorite" treats are either meaty (bits of chicken, liver, stead, hot dogs) or cheesy (string cheese, stinky cheese.) Following these goodies are commercial soft dog treats, and coming in a solid third for most dogs is boring old kibble treats. Trainers call the first-choice treats "high-value" and the last-choice treats "low-value."

Once you know what your dogs high-value and low-value treats are, the next guideline to keep in mind is "harder work gets better treats."

In my home, regular old obedience practice in the living room gets kibble as reinforcements. The work is easy and there aren't any distractions. However, IF I am training something that is especially difficult for my dog, I will switch to a higher-value treat. The work is harder; the pay is better!

Outside of my house, things are automatically harder for my dog. Can you guess why? You got it -- distractions! Ignoring an approaching dog or person and obeying my "stay" command is very difficult for a young dog! A "stay" which might only earn kibble in my living room now earns a hot dog bit!

Many people get this concept totally wrong. They will break out all the finest treats in the house, go through the training exercises, then put the treats away, then take the dog out and try to work it with no reinforcers. This is backwards!

I love to bring training treats out on walks with me, even if the walks are just for fun and no training or difficulty level is present. Because, sometimes difficulties will be present! What if I accidentally drop the leash and the dog runs off, only to turn on a dime and gallop back to me when I call him? If you have treats available, you can reinforce with a big surprise goodie, or a lot of goodies. I once worked with a dog who we were preparing for off-leash reliability. He was doing very well but he'd only been in training for a month. One of the off-leash exercises involves the dog on a long line, then the handler "disappears" or changes direction abruptly without mentioning it to the dog. The dog, through a lot of attention training, is supposed to check in automatically, notice the handler is leaving, and rush to catch up.

This particular time, at exactly the same moment as I "disappeared," a squirrel skittered up to within a couple of feet of the dog. My heart was in my throat! I made the split-second choice of deciding not to command the dog to do anything, because the difficulty level was too high for his level of training, and I did not want him to practice ignoring my recall command. The dog saw the squirrel, but then did as he'd been trained, glanced back to check in with me, noticed my back was turned, and trotted back to my side.

WOW. This was so huge. The dog had made his decision and it was so, so, so correct! I reached into my treat bag and grabbed an ENTIRE handful of treats and basically dumped them all over the ground, praising until I saw the dog's whole body wagging. Normally he got one treat at a time, this time he got one, and then another! and another! and another! and another! and they just kept coming!

This is what trainers call a "jackpot." It's like winning the lottery, only instead of being based in luck, dogs can EARN their jackpots. Off-leash turning away from a squirrel, in my book, earns a jackpot. I'm so glad I had training treats with me! I'm confident now that the next time he sees a squirrel, he will instantly check in with me.

Stay tuned for my next blog post, which will be all about other types of reinforcers! (treats are great, but there are other types of rewards too!)

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