What You’re Doing Wrong When Treat Training Doesn’t Work

Posted by Jackie Ly on

a treat in front of a dog

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When you start training your dog, it’s always important to give them rewards. It’s just like them going to work, and it’s only fair that you pay them in their preferred currency. For dogs, it can be a verbal praise, a petting session, and the highly anticipated treats!

However, you notice that your dog only listens to you when you have a treat, otherwise they go about their business and ignore you. You look for solutions online, and a bunch of articles dismissing positive reinforcement training–or ‘treat training’ as they call it–discourages you all the way more. 

Take heart, that’s not true. Positive reinforcement training has been proven multiple times to be much more effective than any other type of training, and is the recommended technique for all dogs. But why doesn’t it work on your dog? Maybe you are doing some things wrong, and we’re here to help you!

“Treat Training” vs Positive Reinforcement Training

First, let's define “treat training.” Articles use it as a derogatory name for positive reinforcement training with food. They use it to make the process seem silly and insignificant. However, positive reinforcement training with food is an incredibly effective strategy.

It's crucial to remember that treats are just one tool in a broader training approach, and when used correctly, they can be extremely motivating and beneficial to dogs. 

When Might “Treat Training” Not Work?

When treat training doesn’t seem to work, it’s time to look at the users rather than the tool. 

Your dog is too scared or excited to learn

If your dog is either irritable, scared, or too excited for a training session. Then something in your training setup needs to change.

When we say setup, it’s always better to set up your dog for success. Always work when you know they’ll pay attention.  

If you're working on fear-based reactivity, it's possible that your dog is too close to the trigger; they have “bigger fish to catch” and aren't interested in eating right now. 

Similarly, if your dog becomes frustrated with their leash and wants to get closer to something, they are more interested in that than the treat. This means they’re not far along yet in their training: continue until they learn to keep their focus on you despite external triggers. In the meantime, stop training. You don’t want them to pick up that it’s okay to ignore you.  

Solution: Train them in quiet, familiar places with less distractions

Obviously, for “treat training” to work, your dog needs to consume the treat. Try giving your dog more space from his triggers, changing your walking route, and strolling at quieter times of day - anything to keep them from going over threshold on walks.

Training your dog in quiet and familiar places with fewer distractions can significantly improve their ability  to focus and learn. Minimising external stimuli, such as loud noises or new locations, helps you create an ideal learning environment in which your dog feels more at peace. 

This enables them to absorb information and respond to training cues without feeling overwhelmed or distracted.

Adding distractions and testing their focus little by little is part of training. 

You’re not clear and consistent with your cues

When your cues aren't clear and consistent, your dog can get confused and frustrated throughout training. 

For example, when you want your dog to come to you, say "come here" once then "over here" the next. This inconsistency can confuse your dog and make it difficult for them to understand what you're asking. 

Similarly, using different hand gestures or body language to command a single action, such as using a "sit" hand signal one time and bending down with wide arms the next, can confuse them.

Solution: Be clear and consistent with your cues

It's important to consider how you teach behaviour and which part of your cue may be most salient to your dog. It is also important to be consistent in how you deliver your cues. If your verbal cue for sitting is "sit," avoid saying "sit down" while asking your dog to do the behaviour. 

If you use your right hand as a gestural cue for your dog to lift their left paw to "shake," don't be surprised if they fail to respond correctly when you suddenly reach across your body with your left hand. 

You should also have a general idea of how quickly you want your dog to do the behaviour, both in terms of the time it takes your dog to do the action after you give the cue (latency), and the time it takes to complete the behaviour (speed).

There are no correct or incorrect answers. As the owner and trainer, you can choose what's most essential to you, but you must consider your overall expectations in order to create a training plan to support them. 

Your treats are too low-value

Say you're training your dog to perform a recall. Recall is considered a "big ticket" behaviour since it typically requires a lot of your dog - they must stop doing something they enjoy, such as playing with their friends at the dog park, and come to you.

If they do a good recall and their reward is a single dry biscuit, they might not come as willingly the next time (unless dry biscuits are their favourite treat)! 

Solution: Use higher-value treats

Big-ticket behaviours need big payoffs, and they must be something unique that your dog does not receive all the time, or their all-time favourite treat! Think cheese, chicken, or dried sardines - and pile them high with praise.

Providing these high-value rewards, along with enthusiastic praise, creates an effective motivation for your dog to consistently do the desired action, even in challenging situations. Remember, the more valuable the reward, the more likely your dog will repeat the behaviour in the future.

You’re not feeding the treat every time

Positive reinforcement is exactly as it says in the name: you are reinforcing behaviour through a positive item. If you don’t give the positive item, the treat, with consistency, then you won’t reinforce anything. Your dog just gets confused or loses interest in training. 

For example, if you ask your dog to sit but only give them a treat every other time they do so, they might become unsure of when they will be rewarded, resulting in inconsistent responses. 

Solution: Don’t skip treats until they’re fluent

If you're trying to teach your dog a new behaviour, it's especially important to reward them every time they do it. Don't even consider skipping treats until they're more fluent; removing treats completely means the behaviour will soon stop as well.

The same goes for trying to modify your dog's feelings about something they dislike. It's critical to always give them a treat after doing something they dislike (such as being touched). You will receive the best conditioning if you keep this pairing in that order.

You use the treats as a bribe

A bribe is when your dog refuses to respond to a previously taught cue unless you show them a food treat.

An example is when you ask your dog to "Come" but they don't. You step into the kitchen, grab a piece of cheese, and show them you have it before calling them to Come again. This is a bribe.

The dependence on treats as a bribe may interfere with the consistency of your dog's responses to cues and weaken the training process. Instead of responding to the cue out of understanding or respect for your authority, your dog learns to comply only when a treat is provided, resulting in a conditional response that may not be effective in real-life situations where treats are unavailable. 

Solution: Use the treat as a reinforcer, then reduce them gradually 

When training your dog a new behaviour, use the treats at first as a lure to make the behaviour happen, and then switch to the behaviour making the food to happen. This switch must take place as quickly as possible in order to teach your dog that you will not bribe them to do the behaviour. 

To avoid a bribe, remove the hand lure as quickly as possible when they're already fluent. Keep the treat hidden until they've completed the specified behaviour.

Try putting the treats in your pocket or on a nearby table, then cue the action again. They might look confused at first, which is normal! When they do the desired action, praise and give them the hidden treat. 

Eventually, you'll be able to start leaving out the treats or substituting other "life rewards" for compliance when your dog does what you ask, such as going for a walk, putting down their food dish, or being let out of the car at the park. 

You gave up after a few tries

Did you give treat training enough of a chance? Or did you give up after a few tries? For example, if you were teaching your dog to "stay" but stopped after a few sessions because they struggled with the concept, you may have missed out on a chance for progress. Consistency and repetition are key in training, and giving up too soon could hinder your dog's learning process.

Solution: Establish a strong reinforcement history

Be patient and keep trying. The times where you give them treats after doing a desired behaviour may all seem a waste of effort, but they’re not. They become the foundation of trust and a positive reinforcement history.

It's not the one piece of food that will override any distraction, reinforcement history is what enables owners to call their dogs off squirrels and other enticing triggers. If you establish a continuous pattern of wonderful things happening when your dog responds to you—steak, salmon treats, their favourite game—they will come to you more and more naturally. 

Now they wouldn't mind if you occasionally skip the treats after they've done the desired action–you have created enough trust that they will listen the next time.

Treat Training with Balanced Techniques

As mentioned, “treat training” or positive reinforcement training requires patience and consistency. Depending on your schedule, training routine, and your dog’s personality, the training might take a shorter or longer time to be effective.

If you're a busy person and you don’t have enough hours a day over the course of months or years to train your dog consistently, you can incorporate balanced dog training, or find the right trainer to help your dog.

Balanced dog training teaches a dog desired actions by combining reward-based techniques and aversive corrections, which the dog will be introduced once it associates a behaviour with a command.

Balanced trainers might use a range of tools with their dog students, including clickers and body harnesses, as well as training collars and anti-bark collars.

The purpose of the correction, however, is not to punish the dog, but to change their behaviour.

When applied, the pressure (by leash or e-collar) provides just enough information to interfere with the dog's train of thought and redirect their attention to you, the handler.

With enough practice, the dog will understand that their choices will prevent applying pressure, reducing the need for corrections. And when a correction is required, the dog understands why it occurred and can learn to avoid repeating the behaviour in the future.

Bottom Line

“Treat training,” or positive reinforcement training using food is a powerful and effective approach for shaping desirable behaviours and strengthening your bond with your dog. Using the motivational power of treats, you can establish positive associations with training exercises, making learning enjoyable and rewarding for your dog. 

Whether you're teaching simple commands or working on complex behaviours, using treats as positive reinforcement is a versatile and humane method that recognizes your dog's progress along the way. And remember, consistency, patience, and clear communication are key to success.

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