To train your dog to follow cues and perform various tricks, you’re going to need food treats — and lots of them, especially when the trick is new or when your dog is a puppy and is getting the hang of learning in general. You might need to give four or five treats in quick succession in order to solidify the follow-through in your pet’s mind as she repeats the move you’re trying to teach. But how does that square with the standard advice not to give your pet more than 10 percent of her calories as treats, since treats are not part of a dog’s healthful diet and can lead to nutrient imbalances?
The answer: make sure each treat is no bigger than your smallest fingernail. Dogs respond to the positive interaction that a treat symbolizes; it’s not the size of the morsel that counts as much as the fact that you’re giving her something to show your pleasure, which strengthens the bond between the two of you at that moment.
Other strategies when using food as a reward
Make sure the treats are out of this world. For more complicated tricks as well as when your dog is first learning, keep motivation high by offering treats that are truly delectable and not things the dog would normally get. Selections might include tiny pieces of frankfurter, cheese, chicken liver, or beef. Baby carrots, string beans, a piece of the kibble usually doled out at meals…would you jump through a hoop for any of those?
Keep the treats easy to scoop up. If you offer something crumbly rather than easy to grab, the dog is going to put her energy into vacuuming it off the palm of your hand rather than paying attention to the lesson.
Have the treat ready. If you take even 10 to 15 seconds fumbling in a plastic bag to dole out just the right treat of just the right size, your dog will think that every time she listens to your instructions, you fumble in a bag. The food has to be offered immediately after she successfully follows through in order for her to make the connection between her correct response and the reward.
Note that you will not have to give your dog a treat every time she accomplishes a correct response for the rest of her life. After a while, you can give a treat every other time, then less often, until you offer it only rarely. Just the possibility that a treat will come is enough to motivate most dogs. And for simple gestures like “Sit,” treats can often eventually be dispensed with altogether.