When to stop the treats for training your dog...?
In my classes, I often get asked the question, when do you stop using treats to train your dog?
So, the quick answer is…. You don’t! No matter what age your dog is, its always desirable to have some treats on you when you are out, either in your pocket or your bum bag. However, there are different stages of using treats, the quality of treats and also how often you use them. Let’s look at this in more detail.
Puppyhood - This is a CRUCIAL time for learning and your pups need a lot of rewards to reinforce good behaviour and establish good habits. In fact, when you have a pup, you are looking to reward anything that they do when they offer desirable behaviour. If you reward what you like, then the pup is going to offer more of it. Remember that pups don’t come into our homes and lives knowing what they need to do, we have to teach then and reward them for good behaviours. For example, you want your puppy to settle on its bed, the best way to teach pup to do this is to sit on a chair with the bed near you and have pup on the bed and drip feed small treats onto the bed to demonstrate to pup that the bed is a very valuable and important place to be. That way, pup will often choose to settle on the bed if you practice this (useful for going to the pub or café!).
We are also teaching our pups a lot of formal training like sit, down, stay and recall, and to walk well on a lead. We use treats to help establish these behaviours and reward them well. It’s also important to remember that you can use a shop bought treat when you are in your home or garden as there are not so many distractions, but when you are in another, different environment that will be very distracting for pup, you need to up the anti with your treats, so use small pieces of cooked chicken, or sausage for example ( always trial to make sure there are no tummy upsets). You will need these ‘higher value’ treats to keep your pups’ focus on you, otherwise, pups’ attention will be diverted to all the new smells, sights and sounds, other dogs and people. When pups come to my classes, we use higher value treats as they need to learn focus skills with other pups around. Once your pup is really solid at a variety of different behaviours, you don’t need to reward with treats all the time, you can use verbal praise, or a gentle stroke if your dog is comfortable with this. If they are toy motivate, use a toy to reward.
You will get to a point where you are pretty confident with your pup and may think, oh, I can leave off the treats now……. well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news but your lovely young pup will hit adolescence and become a teenager! That means that some of the really well-trained behaviours will regress a bit and pup may well test the boundaries as her world becomes bigger and more interesting. So, in this phase, you need to continue with those high value treats and rewards to keep working through the tricky teenage phase. I can’t emphasize enough the continued use of great treats to reward your dog while they are going through lots of hormone changes and the onset of puberty -it’s a tricky time for them! Depending on what breed and size of dog you have, you will notice their physical maturity way before there emotional maturity kicks in. As a general rule, emotional maturity will happen by 2 years, but obviously if you have a large breed that may take longer. Keep rewarding well with the high value treats and you will ride the teenage journey a whole lot better than if you don’t use them.
Middle age and maturity
As your dog starts to emotionally mature, things that were previously exciting, whether that be people, dogs, leaves blowing, butterflies etc, become less so. This is the phase where you can start to phase out the higher value treats more generally, as their desired behaviours have become established, but I would always still have some treat reward in my pocket and bum bag to reinforce a good recall or leaving something on the floor. You don’t want to phase them out completely. Think of it as maintaining your dog’s great behaviour by intermittently rewarding some of those great behaviours. You could also think of it as simply saying ‘thank you’ to them for responding to your requests. After all, we never stop saying thank you to people when they do things we ask them to! For age guidance, we are roughly looking at age 2 to 5 years. As your dog enters its middle years and then its senior years, treats will be needed a lot less, but I would still reward every so often. I am currently looking after a lovely dog who is now 12 years old. Her owner did a lot of great training and rewarding desired behaviours when she was younger and she is now very easy to walk, take to places and look after. However, I always have a few treats handy to reward her when she comes back or reward her for walking brilliantly by my side. She also enjoys a treat scatter in the grass to play find the treat. This keeps her brain engaged and uses that fantastic nose!
Also, don’t forget that if you have jars full of treats placed in strategic places around the home, like by the front door or the back door, you can reward your dog at any age to help them remain calm when people visit, or delivery drivers knock on the door.
Tracey Prall MAPDT (01223)PPG Full Member, CAP 1
Kennel Club listed
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