Sometimes positive reinforcement trainers get flack for giving their dogs too many treats, and even in my own home, I’ve had people ask me if I’m trying to make my dogs sick. I’ve even written about keeping non-dog food items to less than 10% of a dog’s daily calories, and avoiding unhealthy human foods. I’ve also written that my favorite trainer, Kathy Sdao, wants me to give my dogs 50 rewards a day each, so which is it? How can you reward your dog that much without making them unhealthy?
One of the best strategies is to use foods that are technically dog diets as treats. Moist & Meaty or any canned food are both huge, high value hits with every dog I’ve met, and both are suitable to feed as a whole diet. Natural Balance Dog Food Rolls are premium, semi-moist dog food rolls that my dogs love as much as the best human junk food. If your dog’s base diet is a more basic kibble, these foods will be accepted as delicious treats and you can adjust the amount of kibble you feed to keep your dog’s total daily intake appropriate for his size. On a stressful day when lots of treats are needed, you can increase these foods without risking stomach upset or other issues from too much junk food.
For more mild training issues, you can use your dog’s regular kibble to help train. For instance, many dogs are uncomfortable in the bath tub, and this makes it more difficult to bathe them. Feeding them in the bathroom and eventually moving their kibble into the tub will make them more comfortable with the weird surface and the room in general and decrease their stress and resistance to getting a bath. If necessary, you can add some higher value treats when you add water or restrain your dogs in the tub, but for all but the most serious phobias, you can get most of the way there with kibble and not too much work on your part. The same method can be used to increase your dog’s comfort anywhere around the house, such as in a car (weather permitting) or near appliances that make him nervous, or to desensitize him to the sight of scary grooming tools such as nail clippers. Start a bit away, and with the scary thing turned off, and gradually move closer. In the case of grooming tools, don’t bother your dog with them while they’re trying to eat, but it’s a useful first step for dogs that react just to the sight of tools they’ve come to associate with discomfort.
You can also time meals to reward a desired behavior, such as sleeping peacefully or playing quietly with a toy while you work. Your dog has to get fed every day, but you can choose when that happens to foster good behavior. If necessary, have everything premade so you can just hand the food to your dog to prevent him getting worked up and rude when you’re prepping their meals. If you’re really trying to work on a behavior, break their meals up into many smaller portions and rain food on them several times a day. Right now, I’m working on calm behavior inside and roughhousing outside, so when I “catch” those behaviors a big portion of kibble is likely to appear.
For actual treats, break anything you can into smaller pieces and for toy or smaller breeds consider using a syringe to give small portions of soft foods such as peanut butter, canned dog food, or canned pumpkin. All but the largest breeds of dogs are smaller than you are, so adjusting your portion size accordingly will give you more rewards out of your daily treat allotment. Even the smaller treats made specifically for training are pretty big for toy breeds.
You can also use lower calorie treats to round out a “jackpot” day, or treat a dog that tends to over eat or gain too much weight. If my dogs are getting a hamburger or something similarly bad for them to reward a fake vet trip, or a good recall, the rest of their treats for that day will probably be stuff like popcorn or microwaved sweet potato. I also usually have a tube of Lickety Stik in my purse for a treat with a fairly high value for a very low caloric content.
Lastly, you can use non-food rewards, such as a thrown ball, a game of tug, or a good cuddle. As long as your dog finds something motivating it’s a reward. Watch his body language and make sure he’s enjoying it, but physical affection and play can be incredible motivators. Food is quick, easy and repeatable but it’s just one tool in your arsenal. Using a variety of ways to reward your dog for good behavior and balancing the foods you give him will help you create a dog that’s well behaved, has good temperament, and has a healthy body.
Like with anything else, it’s possible to overindulge your dog and create health problems, but repetition allows your dog to learn quickly and become a more comfortable and cherished member of the family. I consider training an investment in my dog’s mental health and a little junk food is more than worth the result in my opinion.