Why Does the Treat Matter?
Whether or dog is fearful, reactive, or even aggressive, most behavior modification plans rely heavily on a concept known as counter-conditioning, which is the process of changing a dog’s association with a trigger. In order to get the most out of this sometimes tedious process, most experts advise using a special, high-value treat.
You will also be using a lot of treats, which can lead to weight gain. When I was actively doing behavior modification with Maisy, I would often reduce her regular meals in order to compensate for the amount of food she was getting in training. But I also wanted the treats to be at least somewhat healthy. While I have no problem feeding occasional junk foods, I didn’t want to replace several meals a week with the equivalent of a bag of candy. As a result, I’m pretty picky about what I will use during behavior modification.
What Should I Look For?
When I’m considering a treat, I’m evaluating it in three categories: the treat needs to be high-value, relatively healthy, and practical.
High-value treats are anything your dog loves. That makes this a pretty subjective thing. Maisy will do backflips for potato chips, and even prefers them to hot dogs. (Click here to see how I determined this- and how you can, too.) In general, most dogs find novel treats reinforcing, so anything new-to-them is a good bet. They also tend to like smelly, meaty treats.
|Original size on left, cut into fours on right.|
Finally, there are a few practical matters you should consider when buying treats. A good training treat will be small so you can get lots of reps in before your dog gets full. As a side note, I have never found a commercial treat that comes small enough to satisfy me. Zukes come the closest, and would probably be fine as-is for a larger dog, but I prefer to cut those in fours for fifteen-pound Maisy. This means that I also prefer soft treats because they are easier to cut up. Soft treats often tend to be smellier, which dogs prefer anyway. The treat should definitely be easy to handle so I’m not fumbling around with them. Finally, since you’ll be buying so many treats, they need to be economical.
Mr. Chewy makes it pretty easy to choose treats. The majority of what they carry are premium, high-quality treats. While there are a few less-healthy items, they list the ingredients for all their treats, making it easy to evaluate something before you buy. Their prices are also pretty amazing; I did a quick price-check in my local specialty store, and found that Mr. Chewy usually had better prices, sometimes by more than a dollar! They also offer free shipping on orders over $49 (and their free shipping is pretty quick, too). The downside to shopping online is that you can’t read the entire package, including where the treats were made. It’s also not always immediately obvious if a treat is soft.
Which Treats Should I Buy?
This will depend on your dog, of course, because what my dog thinks is high-value and what your dog thinks is high-value will be different. But generally speaking, some of my favorite treats for behavior modification include:
|Small and healthy!|
Freeze-dried treats like Pure Bites, Smiling Dog, and Bravo Treats! These are single-ingredient treats, usually meat, but sometimes things like cheese, making them ideal for dogs with allergies. They are much harder to break up into small pieces.
Non-kibble based food is also a great choice. While kibble tends to be boring for most dogs, you can get the benefit of an AAFCO balanced food by using dehydrated, freeze-dried, canned, or roll-type foods. Some of my favorites include Natural Balance rolls, Stella and Chewy’s, and Honest Kitchen products. Note that only the rolls are easy to cut into small pieces; the rest need to be put in a food tube for delivery. (Incidentally, food tubes are a great way to protect your fingers from a dog who is “sharky” when he takes treats.)
Finally, remember that you don’t have to use commercial products. Boiled chicken breast, chopped beef or pork roasts, and many other “human” foods are a healthy, high-value option for your dog.
What are your favorite treats for training or behavior modification?