First of all what is a 'treat'?
It can be anything that your dog REALLY likes. It doesn't even have to be food. A treat for me is to get to spend a whole day in my workshop... That's a really big 'treat' for me. It's just something an animal REALLY likes and would like to receive again, again, and again.
Food is most commonly associated with treats. Food is a great treat to use for dogs for many reasons. It's something we don't have to teach the dog to want or enjoy. They literally need it to survive. Some foods are more valuable than others however. This is all subjective to the individual. One dog might LOVE liver, whereas another dog might like liver but much prefer roast chicken. Some dogs may even prefer a carrot. What the dog really likes is for them to decide. We have to listen to them and change our treats depending on the dog.
The chances are that nearly all the things you want your dog to do, they're likely not going to naturally want to do, and although it's a nice thought there's zero evidence to suggest dogs do things to simply please us.
Not many dogs want to walk next to us. They naturally walk much faster and the numerous smells that are about are much more appealing to them than walking at heel.
Dogs don't want to come back to us just because we said so. Playing, chasing, biting, sniffing, and rolling around are much more appealing for them.
Expecting a dog to do as we say without paying them for doing so is simply unrealistic. We don't work for free, so why should they? They didn't choose to live with us, we chose them. So we need to be fair.
So in order to train dogs, we have two options. We can treat them for doing well, or have a go when they do things wrong.
For some reason we think dogs should be prewired to understand what our expectations are for them so lots of us will jump to telling them off before we've even shown them what to do. This isn't very fair. When a dog comes in to your household you should expect things to take a while for them to adjust and learn what the rules are. It takes us humans 18 years before we are considered responsible for ourselves and our actions whereas it's not uncommon for us to expect a puppy to be toilet trained in less than a week.
When we see really well trained and well behaved dogs on TV or in the movies, they all have been trained using treats. The best trainers in the world use some form of treat to train their dogs. Not because they necessarily want to but because they have to if they are going to train their dogs to a really high standard.
Using treats in dog training is somewhat of a skill. What treat we use, how we offer it, when we offer it, how often we offer it, and even who offers it all impacts the success or lack of success of the training. Dog training isn't rocket science, but it is a science. Knowing all the small intricacies will determine how successful you are in the long run.
1 - What treats should you use? Whatever your dog likes the most. Do they prefer playing with a ball or chasing or tugging? Do they prefer food? If so then using very high value food for them in challenging situations is a good idea. Offer your dog some platters with different foods available. If they always tend to eat one thing first, then I'd assume that would be the most highly prized for them.
2 - How should you offer the treat? Think about why your dog likes chasing rabbits.. They don't run and jump into your dog's mouth, they do their very best to get away. Try to recreate that. Don't try to force feed your dog with food either. If they won't eat this should be taken as valuable information. They're too overwhelmed. You're making things too hard for them.
3 - When should you offer the treat? Don't fumble around and try to get food out for your dog when you see a potential trigger. Why? Because you fumbling around trying to get a treat ready will eventually become the signal that the trigger is going to soon appear. The treat should come after the dog has either seen a trigger or performed an appropriate behaviour. Don't bribe them, reward them. Pay them for doing a job well done once it's been completed.
4 - How often should you treat them? If you are just starting out then all the time! A general rule of thumb for me when I first start training a dog is anything that isn't 'bad' is good and warrants a treat. So a puppy looks at me - that's getting a treat. A puppy sits down - that gets a treat. A puppy lies down - gets a treat. Once we start to see some solid habits develop we then start phasing out how often we treat them. We don't stop treating them altogether we just don't treat them all the time for getting things right.
5 - Who should offer the treat? If your dog is scared of people the last thing they want is the scary person offering them anything. It's generally wise for the owner/handler to treat the dog so the dog learns to orient towards you as opposed to anybody else. If you get lots of people to feed your dog, don't be surprised once your dog starts trying to mug everyone for food.
Throughout this blog I have used the word 'treat'. The word that is more accurate is 'reinforcement'. When we think of treat training we think it's just feeding the dog when they do something correct. There's so much more to it, and for some dogs food just isn't what is 'reinforcing' enough for them. Some dogs will find chasing fun, otherwise will find biting and tugging fun, some will find having more space not only reassuring but also reinforcing too.
So whenever you train any animal including humans, if you want to get the best out of them, first find out what they REALLY like, then show them what it is that you want them to do, once they complete the task pay them what they want so they will be more likely to do it again and again and again.
If you won't work without a pay-check and to just please your boss, don't expect you dog to work for free either.