Happy October, y’all!
Since October is Trick or Treat month for many people, I thought that we’d do a treat-centric enrichment challenge this month!
For training, food and treats can be an incredibly effective way to teach a new skill or maintain one. Of course, we have other options, but treats tend to be the quickest, easiest way to get from point A to point B without needing to get many foundational skills on board. Allie talks about many of the reasons we use food in training and behavior modification and answers some common questions in this blog.
And, just as I said the utilization of treats often doesn’t require us to get many foundational skills on board, once we’re ready to take our training to the next level, how we use treats can have a whole lot of skill behind it.
So, in this month’s enrichment challenge, we’re going to talk about some ways you can practice your treat delivery, and some tips to help you and your pet make the most out of the treats!
Ways to Deliver Treats
Did you know that the way we deliver treats can make a difference, both for us and our pet? The way we give our pet a treat can increase activity, help them remain stationary and relaxed, be an extremely effective way to reset so we can do the thing we’re practicing again, and more. Trial out some of these options to expand your tool box and better match your delivery to your goals.
Tossing treats can be a great way to introduce a bit more movement and energy into your session when that will help you reach your goals. For example, when I’m working on recall exercises, I tend to want a little more pep in my dog’s step. If the pet I’m working with has some wiggles they need to get out, I can use treat tossing to help them get those wiggles out before we shift into a different type of exercise.
One down side, is that accuracy of both tossing and finding the treat can vary, so you will find that it slow the flow of your session down. But again, that is sometimes a good thing!
And, because we may think all dogs know how to follow and find a treat, that isn’t always true! So in order to utilize this, you may need to teach it and/or practice it.
And there are actually a lot of ways you can toss a treat.
You can toss the treat to your pet for them to catch. This is great if your pet can catch them, and can help add some energy to your session if that is your goal.
You can toss it so that they have to chase it. *Pro-tip* some treats are more fun to chase than others! My pups love chasing gelatin treats that bounce around and move erratically much more than something that just lands where it falls.
I use this one a lot. When we’re out on strolls, or if I want my kiddos to get a little extra movement, tossing a treat so that they have to go 6+ feet to go get it can help increase their activity, give me some time to get my brain back in the session. It can be a great alternative to chasing birds, bunnies or squirrels.
Straight From Your Hand
This one gives you a lot of control about where the treat appears, which can be super helpful when you’re working on specific things. For example, I often deliver the treat from my hand when I’m working on canine fitness with my dogs to help them hold their positioning.
There are a few downsides though. As someone with small dogs and long legs, bending down to feed from the hand can be a challenging thing to coordinate, and sometimes, especially when they are jazzed, that means that they may jump up and be a little more sharky. Or, sometimes when we bend over, we are pushing into their space. We also have to be aware of how we’re delivering the treat to reduce those painful teeth from getting our skin.
And, for some dogs, taking treats gently is a skill that they need to learn, so you may need to invest some time in teaching gentle treat taking skills.
From a Long Handled Device
As I mentioned, I have small dogs and long legs, so sometimes, we use a single piece silicone spatula to deliver the treats. In this case, we smear lickable stuff on it instead of a single bite of a treat. This is a strategy I’ve used a lot, in particular, when working on leash walking skills. It can be easier for both dog and human.
It does take quite a bit of skill though for us humans to keep a pace that our dogs can still move and lick, so again, it can take some practice!
From a Specific Treat Spot
Being predictable with where the treat appears can help keep the flow of a session going and prevent some extra exploration for crumbs. While working on Care with Consent, we use a specific metal bowl and when it is out, Griffey knows that treats will appear there.
This is a really nice option for situations where you want a lot of control, predictability, and to maintain a consistent flow throughout a session. It’s a great option for pets who spend a lot of time looking for crumbs, and/or may take food in a way that hurts the human.
Placing or Dropping a Treat
This is a little different than tossing the treat. The goal here is to increase accuracy for both placement and finding.
While doing Griffey’s nails, the treat always appears on the mat between his two front feet. This helps keep him in his lay, minimizes movement, and gives us a lot of great predictability.
And again, because Laika is so small, I frequently will drop treats right on the floor in front of her to keep her more stationary. Sometimes, I want her to quickly eat the thing so we can move on, and handing it to her is quite the distance to cover.
Treat Scatters or Find It
You know this had to be on the list! We talk about these skills all the time! These are two that are fantastic for slowing things down and getting you little extra time. Speed is not always our goal! Treat scatters or Find it are great when you want to distract your dog and or give them a sniffy reset.
Of course, if you are working with multiple pets, make sure that everyone is safe and there isn’t any resource guarding occurring. I also recommend focusing these on surfaces that aren’t going to lead to accidental ingestion of foreign objects, so avoiding things like pea gravel and mulch.
Pex Dispenser Style
It is really common that we think 1 treat for 1 behavior, but sometimes, turning into a pez dispenser is really going to help you! When I need to keep my dogs in a single spot, when I want them to hang out with me instead of running away again, or when I am working on practicing duration on a skill, we’re likely going into pez dispenser land where the flow of treats may be anywhere between 2 to 20.
Alright, we talked about some different ways that you can deliver treats, let’s talk about some tips to help you along the way!
Tip #1 – Know what your pet likes and what they will work for
If you’ve been on the dog training internet, you know that this is a topic that is talked about… a lot. So, I’m gonna keep it brief, and oh, so over-simplified.
You want to know what your pet likes, and what they will work for. I always use the example of my mom’s fried chicken. She knows that if she really wants me to come to large gatherings, fried chicken is the way to do it. I both like and work for her fried chicken. And I really like ice cream, but I won’t put in much work to get it. If she offers me ice cream for a gathering, it is a no-go.
Tip #2 – Using treats doesn’t need to come with weight gain
This is a common concern we hear from pet parents, and it is a valid one! But, there are a lot of ways that you can minimize or avoid weight gain when you’re using treats in training. When we give our pups a treat, they are teeny tiny, like half the size of a pea, or a pea, and when we’re looking for treats, we look for things that are lower in calories. We save the high calorie things for those really special times. For more tips on using food effectively and safely in training, check out this blog.
Tip #3 – Have multiple ways to deliver a treat
We already talked about this a bit. Having a few ways to deliver treats. Ways that your pet find relaxing, ways that they find fun, ways that help you achieve your goals will make a big difference. It means you’ll have more tools in your toolbox to match the situation that you’re in!
Tip #4 – Know when to use each one
You also want to consider how your pet responds to different treats. For example, Griffey goes absolutely bonkers banana pants for nori sheets. Like, we talk about helping our pet stay in their thinking learning zone, and nori sends him WAY out of that zone, which isn’t helpful in the context of a traditional “training session”. If I’m trying to teach Griffey to relax on a mat, I’m not going to pull out a piece of nori, I’m going to pull out our standard run-of-the-mill treat that he will work for, that he likes, but can maintain his composure around.
But, when the local neighborhood chicken is clucking around and suddenly I see Griffey’s eyes bug out, his back straightens, his hackles go up, and his brow furrow and my little GriffGruffMan turns and looks at me instead of yowling like a banshee, you better believe I have no qualms about flight cueing to a small piece of nori.
Tip #5 – Work on one thing at a time
If you’re working on a new way to deliver a treat, or you’re just trying to guage how your pet is going to respond to something, let all your other goals go, just for a minute.
When we’re building skills we want to focus on one thing at a time, and trying to teach a pet to take a treat gently and do a trick at the same time is going to be frustrating and challenging for you both.
- Trial and eval some new ways to deliver a treat to your pet! Some of them will take practice, either on your part, or your pet’s part, and that’s okay! Skill building is often great mental exercise for your pet.
- If you’ve already got a lot of ways to deliver treats, think about when might be the best time to utilize them. Are you constantly bending over on walks to hand your dog a treat? You might try tossing or dropping the treat, or the long handled spatula.
- And if you’d like help cultivating strategies and skills, we’re here for you!