Treat Your Agility Dog Right

treats for dog trainingWhy is it that when we talk about trick training and dog agility we always talk about positive reinforcement and never punishment based training? Yet, when we talk about obedience, door dashing and other home manners there comes controversy over using treats for training?

Maybe because most agility handlers don’t care how long it takes for their dog to learn the game and because it is viewed as a game, handlers want it to always be upbeat. Or maybe it is because most dog owners don’t know how to properly use treats in training.

Whatever the reason, we want to shed some light on how to properly motivate your dog with treats or toys so you can use it for ALL training you do with your dog. To start with, you need to know what motivates your dog, what makes him sit up and pay attention. Some dogs are highly food motivated while others will do anything for a favorite toy or even your honest enthusiastic praise.

One of the number one mistakes in training is bribing your dog. Whatever your dog’s motivator is, remember that the motivator is his paycheck not a bribe. You must deliver the paycheck every time your dog responds correctly in the beginning of a new lesson. If it is used as a lure you need to fade it out as quickly as possible until you are rewarding at the end of a successful performance by the dog. If your dog wont perform for a reward you are giving, it isn’t the right motivator. Try tastier treats or a different toy.

When it comes to food there are some guidelines you need to follow in order to get the best results from your dog. You will need to have a variety of treats that you can use under different levels of distraction and difficulty of the lesson. Kibble can work just fine for simple tasks under low distraction when used before mealtimes. However, most dogs will lose interest in kibble when stress/distraction get high.

You can try different flavors of kibble or crunchy treats for slightly higher stress/distraction situations. For higher stress/distraction you are going to need tastier or smellier treats to keep your dog’s attention. Treats like hot dogs, boiled chicken or cheese are a great step up with boiled liver or homemade treats with tuna or salmon at the higher end.

All treats need to be small, pea sized, and easy to chew. You don’t want your dog to get filled up or have to spend half a minute eating the treat. Keep several different treats available so your dog doesn’t get bored with the same ‘ol treats.

Try to use a treat bag designed with an easy access top. Using plastic bags in your pocket can teach your dog that the plastic noise or your hand in the pocket is the marker for correct behavior. There is a process for teaching your dog a marker, either clicker of word you use and it is important they associate the two together.

Whatever the motivator is, once your dog responds correctly 5 out of 6 times on a new lesson you need to only treat on improvements. Anytime during training that your dog gives a huge effort, you can and should acknowledge it with a “jackpot” reward. This means you give several rewards successively, not all at once.

Every time you add difficulty or distraction you will need to start over with your delivery, you must be more interesting than the distraction. If your dog fails you have taken too big of a step. Make the increase in difficulty smaller or find a way to help your dog without using force. For example, if you are working on door dashing and you go from sitting at the door with it closed and jump right to opening the door wide open, your dog is going to fail. Break it down to reaching for the knob, turning the knob, opening the door a crack, a quarter, half and so on. If your dog just can’t do a full open door, put his flat collar and leash on. Step on the leash so he cannot reach the door and close the door when he gets up. This way he cannot self reward by exiting the door and you remain in control of his environment.

If you look at ALL training as trick training or part of a game, your dog will love all of it. If you become frustrated or lost, don’t revert back to force, find someone that can help you and your dog stay positive.