Imagine that I told you that you could fix your dog’s behavior problems with 100 treats. It will take 100 days and all you have to do is give him a treat once a day at a specified time. That sounds pretty good, right?
Now imagine that I told you that you could cut that time in half. You will use your 100 treats by giving your dog two treats a day for 50 days. Sounds even better, right?
But what if I told you that you could shorten that time all the way down to one day? You’d need to give your dog all 100 treats throughout that day, and it would probably take quite a bit of concentration to make sure you did everything correctly… but the effort would be worth it, right?
So which option would you choose? 100 days, 50 days, or 1 day?
The numbers in this scenario are not realistic. If they were, I’m pretty sure I’d be a millionaire. Still, the idea behind them IS realistic. When I teach reactive dog classes, the one thing that I consistently notice is that the dogs who make the most progress are the ones who have the most generous people.
But having a high rate of reinforcement is hard for most of us, even when we’re fully on board with using food to train. I know that I personally struggled with that when Maisy and I were first working on her reactivity. I was afraid she’d become dependent on the treats. I was afraid that I’d have to carry food with me everywhere I went. I was afraid I’d never get her back in competitions because food is either not allowed or is very limited in the ring.
The truth is, though, food is like a foundation. Just as an abundant supply of bricks or concrete will make a better base for your house than a small number of logs, using a lot of high value treats in the early stages of training gives you a better chance of getting the results you want. You’ll also get those results sooner because you won’t have to constantly rebuild after every little storm.
When I finally began to reward Maisy for as many good choices as I could, even if that seemed like “too many” treats, she began to make PHENOMENAL progress. In fact, these days she’s practically normal. While there are situations where I do still use a lot of treats- like when she’s acting as a neutral dog for one of my reactive dog clients- there are also times when I don’t use any. I walk Maisy at least twice a day, and I rarely take treats with me. Last week we made a spur-of-the-moment stop at a pet store, and even though I didn’t have any treats with me, it didn’t matter. She was just fine without them.
Now, of course we all know that there are no guarantees when it comes to dog training. There are things you just can’t control when trying to work on a dog’s behavior problems. Notably, a dog’s genetics will limit the amount of progress possible, so not every dog can be “fixed.” (See this post for an in-depth discussion on why this is.) And although you can affect how long it takes to help your dog reach his full potential, there is no way to know in advance how long that will take.
So the next time you’re worried that you’re giving your dog too many treats, remember that it won’t be like that forever. In fact, by being generous, you’re making things easier for both you and your dog. Still, it’s up to you. Use your 100 treats wisely.