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How to train a dog with treats

train a dog with treats
(Image credit: Getty)

Positive reinforcement of good behavior is one of the quickest ways to begin training your dog. And while there may be a fine line between treats as rewards and outright bribery, a dog will quickly begin to associate receiving a treat with the kind of behavior you want to encourage. Dogs love food, and they love the fuss and human interaction of the reward process, so by keeping a handful of treats in your pocket, you’ll be able to speed your new friend toward excellent behavior.

The mere fact that sitting on command, or returning after being sent away, makes their owner happy is not enough for most dogs. By using treats to reinforce good behavior, the desired outcome becomes a natural thing for the dog to do even without the ‘payment’ of the treat.

Which treats?

The distinction between payment and bribery is an important one. By ‘paying’ the dog to do what you want, as long as they understand what is required of them, you reinforce the behavior. It becomes bribery when the treats come out after the dog has refused to do what you ask. If your dog doesn’t follow your instructions, keep the treats out of sight. Bribery may succeed in getting your pup to follow instructions, but it won’t become a habit for them in the way it will if you reward good behavior. We have some great suggestions for treats in our buying guide to the best dog treats.

The treats you choose need to be small, easy to carry, and easy to swallow. As well as being something the dog is enthusiastic about eating, you need to be able to pocket a small bag, hide them about your person, and not add too much to the dog’s diet by using them. Consider using two types of treat, a common, low calorie, one for frequent use – maybe just some of the best dry dog food found in our buying guide – and a higher ‘value’ one for extra special rewards, or to revive interest in a flagging dog. These more interesting treats may also come in handy if you’re training in an area rich in exciting smells and sights – it will keep the dog’s attention fixed on the task at hand. Choice of location when training is important, so if your dog is easily distracted, begin training in a quiet place to get some reinforcement in before moving on to a busier locale.

train a dog with treats

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Make sure you don’t accidentally reward the wrong type of behavior, as your dog may associate you being close to the treat jar with getting one, so keep treats well out of sight – dogs have an excellent sense of smell, so hiding their presence may not always be possible, but try not to give the impression that you’re going to get the bag out when you’re not. Remain calm while training, and don’t bring out the treats too early or fuss your dog when it hasn’t achieved the task it has been set. If you’re training something new, reward every step along the way to achieving the goal, just a little bit. Sitting may be new, so getting halfway into position deserves a small treat, saving a bigger or meatier one for when they achieve the complete sit. 

Everything that precedes the receipt of the treat is reinforced, so having your dog return to you for a treat makes them more likely to come back when called, even if you’re training something else. It’s also important to reward your dog promptly, especially when introducing a new command, so that they associate the treat with the action they just performed. Don’t give a treat to a dog displaying unwanted behavior, such as jumping up in excitement, as this will reinforce the wrong ideas. Verbal encouragement should also be given along with the treat, a ‘good’ or ‘yes’ going a long way toward getting the behavior you want.

Treats can be used as a guide for a few commands, such as sitting, laying down, and rolling over. Hold the treat close to your standing dog’s nose, and raise it up and back toward their ears. The dog will naturally raise their head to follow it, and their haunches will lower toward the ground. Let them have the treat when they’ve assumed the sitting position, all the while repeating the command. They’ll get the idea pretty quickly, and the treat makes it more fun for the dog, making them more likely to learn faster.

Once the desired behavior is well ingrained in your dog, and they reliably perform it on command, you can begin to phase out the treats, not giving them every time and eventually not giving them at all. A clicker can come in handy to keep the reinforcement going without feeding, but even if there are no treats coming, just a bit of fuss and attention, the dog will not stop performing the desired actions.