A question I’m often asked is “when can I stop giving my dog treats?”
The answer is not a simple one, and there are a few things to consider when deciding if/when to quit using treat rewards when training your dog:
1) First, think about how long you would work at your job – with dedication, enthusiasm, precision – without knowing if or when you would be paid? A day? A week? A month? Even in a volunteer role you would devote yourself to a cause only if you felt needed or good as a result of your efforts.
2) How well has your dog learned the behaviors you’ve been teaching him, and how long do you want your dog to retain what he’s learned?
3) How strong is the bond/relationship between you and your dog?
Sustaining Trained Behaviors
Dogs really are all “what have you done for me lately?” Whatever they do, whenever they respond to your commands, there has to be something in it for them – a reward or not having to deal with an unpleasant consequence. They want to be well paid for their work, and they want to be paid with something they value. After all, making the choice to come to you when called may involve giving up chasing a chipmunk through the back yard. So what does your dog value as much as or more than treats – enough to obey a command when he’s off leash and faced with the most challenging of circumstances? When you figure out that, you can replace treats with it and use it to reward your dog for his behavior.
While it may seem that dogs learn quickly when responding to commands in your living room, when asked to do the same in new situations with unfamiliar dogs and people present, they don’t always do so well. To put it into perspective, I often say that if you want your dog to be well-behaved in 10 different places or situations, you need to train him in 100 different places and situations. Distractions are a dog’s undoing, and your dog needs to be rewarded often enough over many, many months, if not years, to sustain behavior for the long haul and under a variety of circumstances. You will lose behavior if you reduce the frequency of rewards prematurely as well as if you quit reinforcing any given behavior – at least from time to time – throughout the life of the dog.
Why does your dog do what you ask? Why does your dog want to be with you? Over time, much of what dogs do for us and with us happens because of the relationship that develops between us and them, which starts with the pleasant experiences you create and the rewards you give your dog when you teach and train him: treats, meals, petting, praise, toys, play, going for walks or car rides, etc. As your bond with your dog grows, he will do more and more of what you ask “just because”, but he will perform better, longer, with more enthusiasm and precision when he is rewarded for his efforts – from time to time at minimum.
Pain Does Not Result In Gain
It is not lost on me that people who train their dogs with pulls and jerks, with prong collars, choke collars, and e-collars, and with harsh or painful methods NEVER ask when they can stop correcting their dogs. But everyone wants to know when they can stop giving treats. I don’t get it. Why would you want to discontinue using a tool that gets results in a positive and motivational way, that does no harm, and that furthers the bond between you and your dog, but you would not want to stop using pain-based tools that can cause your dog physical harm, chip away at the relationship you have with your dog, make your dog not trust you or even fear you?
I live on 40 unfenced acres in the middle of nowhere. In addition to your everyday chipmunks and squirrels, there are plenty of fox, deer, turkey, sand hill crane, pheasant, and the like. I enjoy walking or snow shoeing around the property with five or six dogs at a time. The thought of managing five or six leashes is both comical and daunting. Instead, before I head out, I grab a handful of treats and shove them in my pocket. Even with all the space and the wildlife distractions, my dogs stick close to me – and happily so – because we have fun together and I reward them well for doing so. To be able to control half a dozen dogs with the expectation of a good time and a pocketful of treats . . . how convenient is that?