There’s a reason I usually go through the self-checkout at the grocery store. Okay, a lot of reasons. I’m pretty anti-social and I like to do things myself. The other day, though, the self-checkout lines were way longer than the cashier-checkout, so I hauled my cart over to the first illuminated aisle and unpacked my cart onto the conveyor belt.
I stood near the card-swiper as the charming cashier scanned my items and bagged them, staring off into space like I normally do. As she approached the deli and refrigerated stuff in my order, though, I could sense her slowing down between scanned items. What was the problem? I was just stocking up on our usual groceries and stuff for Cerberus – you know, turkey necks, chicken parts, training treats.
She held up a roll of Koegel-brand Braunschwieger, an unappetizing cylinder of pink putty-like liver sausage.
“Do you eat this?” she asked curiously.
I wrinkled my nose and laughed. “Oh, no. It’s for my dog.”
“Ohhhhhh.” She sounded relieved and wrapped up the rest of my order without comment.
There was a time in Cerb’s life when I thought we’d never be able to use food as a reinforcer when we trained. He has always been insane about food – I mean, “totally gone crazy in his head”-type of insane. He’s never wanted for food in his life, so I’m not sure where his food drive comes from, but it’s there. Oh, boy, is it there. So when Cerb was younger and I was a relative stranger to positive reinforcement training, I figured treats were just out of the question – the mere appearance of a delicious morsel was enough to blow. Cerb’s. mind. He would get so excited that he could barely control his body, let alone think through what I was asking him to do.
The end-result of Doggie Zen: No chocolate* for Cerb!
(* Neverever give your dogs chocolate. Ever.)
It was only later, after I’d learned more about the point of positive reinforcement and played fun games like “Doggie Zen” that I realized how lucky I am. These days, I look at Cerb and I wonder where the heck we’d be if not for his food drive. His willingness to work for food makes training a snap and food rewards are so easy to deliver while in motion, like through a rally course. Of course, there are always those who make disparaging remarks about trainers who use treats, calling them names like “cookie dispensers” and telling us our dogs won’t work unless there’s food involved. All I need to do is point to Cerb’s titles in weight pull, his CGC and his progress in Rally to prove that that’s not the case – you can’t take food into any of those competitions and yet Cerb still excels. Proper R+ training is not bribery, because bribery stops working the minute you take the bribe away. Instead, R+ training creates a give-and-take relationship between the trainer and her dog wherein the dog trusts that if he performs well, he will eventually be paid. Maybe not right at that instant, but perhaps after the whole string of behaviors is finished or the competition is over. It’s a method of training that results in your dog offering – yes, performing of his own accord – the behaviors you’ve taught him will be rewarded. I absolutely love it.
He doesn’t sit like this for freakin’ carrots, okay? Where’s the beef?!
Treats are fantastic training tools and positive reinforcers, but not all treats are made equal. When I first started R+ training, I showed up with a box of Milkbones. Dogs like those, right? Cerb sure seems to enjoy crunching them up! They make pretty messy training treats, though. First of all, they’re so hard that your dog will need to chew them a few times, which is fine at the end of training but can really slow you down when you’re moving at a fast pace, like when you’re training your dog to heel or to pull a cart. Secondly, they’re just not that exciting. If someone offered you a plain piece of toast or a cupcake, which would you prefer? In distracting training environments, you’ll want to arm yourself with the stinkiest, most delicious treats you can find, because they have to compete with all the natural distractions your dog might experience. If someone offered me a piece of toast to do a handstand, I’d probably pass, because handstands are hard and I’d rather just sit down and enjoy the sunshine. If someone offered me a cupcake, though… now we’re talking.
Of course, I can’t have a whole cupcake every time I do a handstand, especially if I’m trying to train the perfect handstand and I have to do twenty in a row. Obesity is as much a health issue for pets as it is for people! When you choose a training treat, make sure it’s something that can be broken down into teeeeeeeeny pieces. I’m serious. Smaller-than-a-thumbnail pieces. When you’re training a new behavior, you’re going to use a really high rate of reinforcement and go through those treats pretty quickly. If you’re feeding whole cookies, your dog will probably get really full and really fat really fast!
So what makes a good training treat, then? What’s soft and easy to swallow, delicious and delectable to fight distractions, firm enough to be cut into tiny pieces, and – importantly – affordable? When I go treat-shopping, I like to remember my 4 Ss: Small, Soft, Stinky, and on Sale! I surveyed Team Unruly members to see what they had to say…
First off, I’ll offer my own opinion. Cerb has great food drive but is a clumsy chewer, so I need something soft and non-crumbly so we can keep moving when we’re training. We also train for long periods of time with a high rate of reinforcement, so it needs to be something firm enough to cut into tiny pieces. On top of all this, Cerb has various food intolerances that pretty much rule out most commercial dog treats, even the stuff that markets itself as having limited ingredients. When we train, we use Koegel’s Braunschweiger, a brand of liverwurst sausage that can be kept frozen for longevity and then thawed and cut into strips, slices or cubes. I’ve tried other brands of Braunschweiger but they tend to be really mushy and pasty. Koegel’s has the texture of soft bologna, so it keeps its shape even when you cut it into tiny bits. I also like cutting it into strips so I can constant-feed Cerb when we’re working in a really high-distraction environment (like when I’m trying to help him associate passing dogs with Good Nom Times). Braunschweiger is all meat, no grains, so it works really well for Cerb’s food allergies, and it’s not full of sugar either! Another treat I really like is the Happy Howie’s Gourmet Meatroll(sounds appetizing, doesn’t it?).
Happy Howie’s Gourmet Meatroll. Product photo from Happy Howie’s.
These can be hard to track down – I drive over an hour to get mine at K9 Specialties in Warren, MI. This product is a little bit firmer than the Braunschweiger and can get a bit crumbly if you’re rough with it, but Cerb really likes it and it’s easy to cut into small pieces. If I don’t have Braunschweiger or Happy Howie’s, I’ll just use shredded, cooked meats (chicken, turkey, beef, lamb) or bits of cheese.
Kelsey also likes to use cheese for Lucy and Nellie. She’s also had good luck with the Natural Balance food rolls, dried liver, and chopped-up hot dogs. As far as other commercial training treats, Kelsey recommends Zukes Mini Naturals (Cerb likes these, too!), ZiwiPeak Good Dog Treats and Nature’s Instinct raw bites. Kelsey’s criteria for good training treats include small size, high protein and low calories. She also likes stuff she can chop up and freeze in advance so she can just grab what she needs whenever it’s time for a quick training session!
Katie and Merissa both love cut-up Pet Botanics food rolls and treats. These treats need to be kept in the fridge and used quickly or they’ll dry out, but they smell delicious to dogs and they’re soft and easy to swallow on the run. Katie’s eeeeevil red dog Luce and Sarah’s long-dog Owen also enjoy tuna fudge, which sounds disgusting but is apparently dog heaven. I found a recipe here, along with some other cool cook-at-home training treats! Making treats at home is a really good way to know exactly what’s in your dog’s food – very important for those of us with allergen-sensitive dogs!
Mmmm, lickable noms!
Sarah also likes the TreatToob by PAWW. This isn’t a treat itself, but a gooey-treat dispenser. You can fill them with all sorts of lickable treats – in this photo, Owen’s enjoying a mix of one part peanut butter to two parts non-fat Greek yogurt, which makes a high-protein healthy treat he can lick on the go! Sarah tells us that the TreatToob is way less messy than the usual squeeze-tubes she picked up at the camping gear store and recommends this method for delivering high-value treats during training sessions.
Dahlia loooooves turkey hot dogs!
Sarah, Ren, Michelle and Merissa all stand by tried-and-true favorites like diced-n-sliced hot dogs, cooked chicken, and string cheese. String cheese is particularly useful for luring behaviors because you can palm most of the stick and just expose the tip to be nibbled on as a reward. Hot dogs are great for cutting into itty-bitty little pieces and they do well being frozen and thawed – Kelsey likes to cut up a whole bunch at once, then freeze then and just scoop out what she needs at the time. Cooked chicken and other leftovers are great, too, as long as you’re careful to make sure there’s absolutely no cooked bones and not too much salt or other flavoring on the meat. Cooked meat is great because you can tear it into shreds as you train and it can smell really delicious – plus, it’s affordable because you were likely buying it for yourself anyway!
Got some more ideas for the perfect training treats? Let us know! We’re training all the time and always looking for the next great thing to pay our hard-working dogs!