Thursday, March 15, 2012

Choosing the Best Treat for Behavior Modification (Brought to you by!)

A few weeks ago, I was approached by, who asked me to review their site in exchange for some free products. The timing couldn’t have been better because I’d been thinking about writing a post on the best treats for behavior modification work. I used their easy-to-navigate website to order some of my favorites so that I could show you guys what I look for when I’m buying treats for behavior modification.

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.
Although Maisy loves chips, they are not healthy, so I use them sparingly, especially when doing behavior modification. In general, I’m using the same criteria I use when buying food, although I will relax my standards a little. Ideally, the treat will list meat as the first ingredient, have no by-products, and few (if any) grains. I also prefer an ingredient list with natural items; I try to avoid lots of chemicals and preservatives. I like to avoid sugar when I can (it just doesn’t seem like a dog with impulse control problems needs to be on a sugar-high). And I refuse to buy treats from China; there are just too many horror stories out there!

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!
Soft treats like Zukes, Wellness, Solid Gold, Platos, and Buddy Biscuits. Some of these are easier to cut into small pieces than others, but all have pretty good ingredients.

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?


Crysania said...

I currently use turkey hot dogs for training. I know it's not the healthiest thing on earth but I've struggled to find something healthier that's easy to deal with and not too expensive. She can't have chicken so that leaves out just buying chopped up chicken. Beef falls apart SO easily and is way too messy. We used to use some of the Pet Botanics rolled meat but it wasn't high value enough and neither are any of the premade bagged treats like Zukes. So I settled on turkey hot dogs.

Andreja said...

Ruby's favorites are beef heart cooked with anise seed, meatballs, cheese and scrambled eggs (really handy if I run out of treats!). He particularly likes it if I mix two of these together so he doesn't eat one and the same treat for the whole session.

Also, since food is not on the top of his list of motivators, pieces need to be a bit bigger to make it worth it for him.

Crystal Thompson said...

Crysania, my biggest complaint about Pet Botanics/Natural Balance is the mess. That stuff just sticks to my fingers. By the end of an hour it's super gross.

Susanna said...

Oh boy, Trav's favorite subject! His high-value treat is string cheese. He'll walk on a loose leash past chickens and cats if I crinkle the wrapper in my right pocket. Regular training treats are Charlee Bears and turkey dog pieces. (I zap them in the microwave on medium for 3 min.) Lowest-value is his regular kibble. For most "maintenance" training and even sometimes for learning new stuff, I vary the kibble with Charlees and turkey dog bits.

Trav is a big guy (85-90 lbs), so we've got more leeway than with much smaller dogs. My top criteria (after "he likes it") are portability, convenience (slicing and zapping turkey dogs is as complicated as I get), and price.

petlover1 said...

I don't use Natural Balance rolls anymore sinceI noticed that the third ingredient is sugar. I've started using Green Tripe's K-9 Magic rolls instead.

Catalina said...

At home I use kibble mixed with canned dog food. I mix up a container and keep it in the fridge. Outside of the house I use all sorts of things. Mostly 'people' food, because it's cheaper and I can see what it is a little better. I try to buy the lowest salt/sugar. So hotdogs, chicken,fish,meatmalls,beef,pork roast,cheese sticks,ham,salami, ect, ect. There is a meat bin at my grocery store that has marked down things. I always check it and then I freeze my bargins and thaw/cook it fresh for class. I save a ton of treat money doing that!
I've been a vegetarian for 12 years and I won't cook meat for any one else, but I will for Tibby LOL!!!

Jen said...

I got some Pure Bites on our last Mr. Chewy order. Smelly and crunch, and I can break them up smaller.

Every time I get a new kind of trick, Elka reacts with a sense of wonderment, it seems. "This great new smelly thing? For me?"

We've used a number of thing for dogs, cheese, pretzels, cheez-its, roast pork. Sometimes I look in the fridge before our walk and just decide! My homemade turkey meatballs are a big seller for her.

Ninso said...

Elo's highest value is natural balance. Or perhaps string cheese, I used that once and he adored it and I keep forgetting to get more.
Jun's highest value is roasted chicken.
Lok's highest value is any kind of cheese!
I try to switch it up often, but almost never buy commercial dog treats anymore. Hot dogs, roasted chicken, and natural balance are in constant rotation. Along with whatever leftover meat I don't feel like eating.

Crystal Thompson said...

Oh, wow, petlover1- good point! I don't use the rolls anymore (food allergy issues), so I didn't realize/remember that sugar was so high up on the list.

Shannon said...

I used to use the Natural Balance rolls as well, and had issues with them - they made Sienna super thirsty. Which didn't seem very healthy to me.

I currently use the Zukes, Stella & Chewys, and Evo Small Bites kibble. Sienna eats raw for meals, so kibble is novel for her and works as a treat. I like to mix a bit of everything in the treat bag so she never knows what she'll get. I also save my steak trimmings from dinner and add them to the mix - which goes over very well.

Good idea cutting up the Zuke's, I was going to try that with the Stella & Chewy's; I don't know why it didn't occur to me to cut up the other treats as well! Also, very creative way to incorporate a product review with something useful. :)

Martina Schoppe said...

something about selfcontrol and sugar:

Is willpower more than a metaphor? Gailliot et al. (2007)
explored the role of glucose, a chemical in the bloodstream that
can be converted to neurotransmitters and thus furnishes fuel
for brain activity. Acts of self-control cause reductions in bloodglucose levels, which in turn predict poor self-control on
behavioral tasks. Drinking a glass of lemonade with sugar helped
counteract these effects, presumably by restoring glucose in
the blood. Lemonade mixed with diet sweeteners (no glucose)
had no such empowering effect..."


Crystal Thompson said...

Martina I've seen that study (or one similar?) before, and would love to test it out with reactive dogs. I have no idea how to set that up, though, so I just avoid excessive sugar for now. :)

Anonymous said...

Anything I can put in a food tube is our best treat when we're working on reactivity. It tends to be stinky stuff (we use Trippett's canned green tripe, or a variety of canned dog foods), and even better is that I can keep the rate of reinforcement really high. I've never been able to deliver anything as quickly as I can in a food tube. I'm interested in trying the lickety stiks, but haven't gotten around to it yet.


Joanna said...

I'm not a fan of the Natural Balance rolls due to the sugar and salt context. I'm hitting up the local stores to find some Pet Botanics rolls, though.

Half of my dog's daily intake is ZiwiPeak, a dehydrated food which is not too messy and easily broken into small pieces. I'm also trying out a dehydrated food called Real Meat, which smells really meaty and is also broken up into tiny pieces very easily.

Crystal Thompson said...

I preferred the Pet Botanics rolls until they put eggs in all their formulas. (Maisy's allergic to eggs.) :(