top of page

When Do We Get Rid of the Treats?! A Guide to Treats

Your dog sits, they get a treat. Your dog comes, they get a treat. Your dog lays down, they get a treat. It feels like they get so many treats, when does it stop?!

dog treat training

One aspect of using positive reinforcement is to give treats (or food in general) to reward good behavior and reinforce that behavior, i.e. get them to keep doing it! But hear me when I say that treats are your tool and should be used as such.

Treats are your tool to get a dog to do a behavior you want when you want it. That's pretty powerful if you really stop to think about it. You want your dog to not jump when your mother comes over. You want your dog to walk by another dog without barking or pulling. You want your dog to come when he's off leash and you see another dog. These are really big asks! These behaviors are when you want to reward your dog, but you have to put some work in in order to get to that place, and part of that is using your treats wisely.

I created a graph to visualize treats being used based on the dog's behaviors. Some immediate things to consider:

  • Dog owners often get tripped up on knowing which column their dog is in, it is based on their behavior

  • Treats never go away completely

  • You use the most treats when you are teaching new behaviors, don't skimp on treats in the beginning!

Teach Dog Behavior

You start by teaching your dog a behavior. When teaching, you use a treat every time the dog does the behavior successfully. In order for a dog to associate the command with the behavior, you will need to practice consistently and frequently. The treat is reinforcing the behavior before the dog understands the word "bed" means sit on their dog bed. But they understand they get a treat when they sit on that dog bed so they keep doing it expecting that treat. So you keep giving those treats saying "good bed" "good bed" "good bed" over and over again.

It is important to note that you can teach new behaviors throughout your dog's life. They always start here, with lots of yummy treats, and then they always advance, to less and less treats as the behavior becomes reliable.

Common dog owner behavior: Not treating when your dog does the behavior. If your dog leaves slippers because you told them to, then treat them to teach them that was so good!

Common question: So what? I need to have treats on me all day?! I tell dog owners to train about 10 minutes a day and then one training opportunity where you can put those learned skills in real life scenarios. The rest of the day, you are redirecting your puppy like a toddler.

Behavior is Reliable

Once a behavior is reliable, you must randomize treats. You should and you have to. At TheTreat, we use the marker "yes" to communicate the dog performed the desired and therefore earned the treat, so while we are teaching the behavior we are also teaching the dog that "yes" means treat. We can randomize treats because when we say "yes" the dog thinks they are getting a treat - whether they actually get one or not.

How do you know if the behavior is reliable? You need to say yes to two items:

  1. your dog knows the behavior associated to the command

  2. your dog thinks he is getting a treat

Ask yourself "what is the best command my dog can do?" Let's say it is an easy one like sit or touch. Do the command five times and see if your dog does it every time. You say the command, the dog does it and then expects a treat. If you got 100% success, then you should start randomizing treats.

Do the command five times again. But this time, give your dog a treat every other time. Don't lose the communication. Remember, you say yes they think treat whether they get a treat or not. If your dog does the command five times in a row with only three treats, you are in the right place! They thought they were getting a treat so they will do the behavior again thinking they'll get a treat again.

Common dog owner behavior: Continuing to treat every time for the reliable behaviors. You always want a dog to work hard for their treat. They can work harder by doing multiple commands for one treat.

Common question: Can a dog be reliable with one behavior and not another? Yes! Your dog is likely to be reliable at easier commands like sit and touch before they are reliable with more difficult commands like leave it, off and come. This means that you treat every time for unreliable behaviors and randomize for reliable commands.

Behavior is Unreliable in Environment

A small change in environment can lead to a big change in behavior for a dog. Just going to the basement or the kids' rooms upstairs will lead to behavior changes. New smells, distractions, textures, etc. will become distractions for your dog.

If you bring your dog to a new environment, you will need to gauge their responsiveness. You really want to find success and then build off of it. That means you want to use treats to find reliability again and then once they can perform the behaviors as they usually do, start randomizing the treats again.

Good rule of thumb: If they fail three times, then use a treat on the third time. If they still don't do a behavior, make it is easier by luring or getting distance from the distractions.

Common dog owner behavior: Thinking that since a dog can do a behavior reliably in one environment, that they can do it in a more difficult environment.

Behavior is Learned and Understood

dog training treats
Max in his place. Every once in awhile he gets a treat.

This is every day life! For an adult dog, you do not use treats all day, every day. You might bring a jerky stick on a walk or to a picnic, but you don't need them in all your pockets like you did when they were puppy. However, you do not ever give up on treats!

As a reminder, treats are your dog's motivation to do a behavior when you want them to do it. I always tell people to think about what motivates them to work for someone else. It is usually money! Would you still go back to work if you stopped getting paid?! Maybe the first day - it must of been a mistake. Maybe the second day - make a note to talk to your manager. But eventually, why would you work for free?! Your dog feels the same way.

Behaviors will be learned and understood with practice, consistency and the proper use of treats up until this point. Every once in awhile, throw in that treat. It is best if they don't know when it is coming.

Some examples of commands that are learned and understood and get a treat every once in awhile:

- coming inside when called

- going into the crate when you leave the house

- walking on a leash

- going to their place for their morning nap

Common dog owner behavior: Thinking that you can completely get rid of the treat. The dog will eventually stop doing the behavior or at least give you some resistance.


bottom of page