You want to start doing some training with your dog, and you’ve heard getting some treats is a good place to start. Easy, right? Well, if you want to get the best results from your training, you might want to take some time to think about what type(s) of treats you should purchase.

First, you have to understand why we use food in training. It’s considered a “primary reinforcer,” so it generally has a strong, immediate value to the dog (versus something that has to be taught over time). It’s also something we can dole out in small, quick portions, which allows us to get lots of repetitions of new behaviors. We generally recommend using pea-sized treats, to avoid your dog getting full during training. So when you’re wanting to teach your dog some new behaviors, positive reinforcement using food is usually your best bet. 

Now you’ve got some decisions to make: what kinds of treats do you actually need? Let’s talk about treat value. Just like you, dogs are great at doing “math” when it comes to what something’s worth. You wouldn’t accept $1 for a $100 job, and neither will your dog! So when we ask our dogs for more difficult behaviors (or in harder situations), we need to pay more. For example, a “sit” at home in the living room might be $1, but the same “sit” in a park with squirrels running around will cost you $100! So to get the most out of training, you need the right value of treats for the job.

  • Low-Value Treats

    • These tend to be on the crunchier side, and not super stinky.
    • Kibble is the ideal low-value treat for easy skills inside the house since it’s already part of your dog’s diet. 
    • Many “training treats” also fall into this category. They may be more exciting than kibble, but not by too much. But you can get some good variety here—things like blueberry or peanut butter flavors!
  • Mid-Value Treats

    • These items are stinkier than your low-value treats and can be used in outdoor environments or with harder skills.
    • Freeze-dried meats (especially fishy kinds) are particularly popular, as well as the softer/mushier treats.
  • High-Value Treats

    • These are the “big guns” we bring out when we REALLY need our dog’s attention, despite lots of distractions. Especially when working with a fearful or reactive dog, or trying to help through stressful events, high value is the way to go.
    • Fresh meats tend to be in this category—things like chicken, deli turkey or ham, hot dogs, etc. And for some dogs, the flavor makes all the difference. Teriyaki chicken or honey ham might be the absolute favorite!
    • Cheese, cream cheese, and peanut butter also often go in this category.
      • A quick note about peanut butter: some brands include xylitol, which can be toxic for dogs. Be sure you’re getting peanut butter without xylitol!

 

Remember, these are just guidelines. Your dog is the one who decides what treats are super high value for them! Some dogs don’t like peanut butter, and others love crunchy treats the most. 

Treat delivery is also important when choosing what treat to use. Do you need something you can easily toss on the ground, to reset your dog to a standing position in between “down” cues? You might choose something round like kibble or a pre-made training treat. Need something super high value that you can use to distract your dog while getting through a scary hallway or other tough situation? Try an open jar of baby food or a squeeze tube filled with yogurt or blended tuna. If you’re working with a small dog on leash walking, bending over to give your dog treats might be a pain. So try freezing some peanut butter or cream cheese on a long-handled wooden spoon, so you can just lower the spoon to your dog’s height for a lick or two as you go along. 

Nutrition is a major factor when choosing treats. There are a few strategies to ensure that your pup stays healthy while you’re working on your training goals. First, make sure you’re monitoring their overall caloric intake. If they’re supposed to eat two cups of kibble but now you’re adding a half-pound of rotisserie chicken, you’re going to have a serious weight gain problem! So make sure you monitor your dog’s overall intake and reduce their food if you’re adding other treats. We also need to ensure that our pups get their necessary nutrition, and keep a healthy GI system. If you can train using kibble or pre-made training treats with meat ingredients, these will have higher nutritional value and less “junk.” In some cases, you may need that fresh turkey or string cheese to work through tougher behavior issues, so just be mindful of how much you’re giving. Large amounts of these types of foods can be tough on stomachs, so we don’t want to overdo it.

Other factors: if your pup is on a special diet or has allergies, you may need to get a little creative with your treats! Same thing if you’re uncomfortable handling meaty stuff, or if your dog has a few pounds to lose. Some dogs actually love things like baked sweet potato, carrots, apples, or strawberries, so you may be able to use these items!

Pro Tips: crunchy biscuits tend to be too large and too low value for training, so reserve them as fun snacks for once-in-a-while! Any larger “treats” tend to be ineffective for training, and tend to have less healthy ingredients. If you’re going for store-bought treats, stick to the ones that come in pea-sized bites, and generally look for the same types of ingredients you would in dog food.