Choosing which kind of and how many treats, or food rewards, to bring to a dog training class is one of the most important factors in your training success during class time. Choosing the right treat can mean the difference between a “Wow!” training session and one where you struggle to hold your dog’s attention the entire class.
Before choosing a food treat for your dog, consult your veterinarian about your dog’s diet and make sure there is no food your dog cannot have, for health reasons. Most dogs tolerate “people food” relatively well, especially considering they will only be getting this food during class and occasional training outings, rather than every meal.
Which treat is best? I often find a combination of foods is the most likely to hold a dog’s attention throughout an entire class, with other dogs, new sights and scents and people all competing for your dog’s attention. Experiment at home with several different food rewards, and keep a list of which treats your dog likes best. (I like to rank them 1 to 10, 1 being the lowest and 10 being the most amazing treat that your dog will do anything to get!)
For example, kibble or dry dog biscuits might be ranked a 1 or a 2, even if your dog loves to eat. These offerings are typically ignored during a class by all but the most indiscriminate of eaters. Uncooked hot dogs and store-bought treats usually come in at a 3 or 4. This may surprise you, as it does a number of people who bring these treats to class, only to find their dog snubs them. “But he loves these at home!” is a typically surprised reaction.
Level 5 treats and above are usually required to compete with the dog movie theater that is a training class. This could include anything from cheese to Natural Balance or Red Barn food rolls to boiled chicken breast, roast beef or even cooked liver!
A few more tips for using treats in class:
Use small treats. If your dog finds the treat appetizing enough, she should be willing to work for small portions. Small dogs can have licks of canned food, baby food or peanut butter from a jar or spoon. Or, you can take a treat sized for a larger dog and cut it into smaller pieces. Medium-sized dogs can have treats the size of your fingernail. For a large dog, more than 70 lbs., aim for something similar to nickel-sized slices of hot dog. Some folks like to use a Lickety Stik, essentially bacon flavoring delivered one lick at a time.
Texture matters. Think about how you will be using the treats in class; if you need them to lure the dog into position, sometimes a soft treat, or food the dog can lick rather than eat piece-by-piece is best. If you are working on exercises that require you to dole out one piece of food at a time, soft but sturdy pieces are often best. Whatever you choose, make sure it is not crunchy; dogs often have a harder time swallowing crunchy pieces quickly, or are forced to chew them, which slows repetition of the behavior or delivery of the next treat.
You will use more treats during class than you think you will. Plan on bringing a full dinners’ worth of treats, plus half, to class. For example, if your dog normally eats one cup of food at his evening meal, bring one-and-a-half cups of treats. Better to have food left over than to run out before you and your dog have finished training!