Who decides what is rewarding to your dog? Your dog, of course! What defines a reward is different for different dogs, and different for the same dog depending on the situation. While toys, enthusiastic praise, being released to go outside, and many other possibilities can be rewarding, we usually use food for training. Food is easy. Food allows us to reach a high rate of reinforcement (many good things delivered in a short span of time). Food options are copious.
All healthy dogs are food motivated. They need to eat to survive, right? Certainly some dogs may be more motivated by a squeaky ball than food. Or a dog may be far too anxious to even take food in a given situation. Most often, the dog who is considered not to be food motivated is simply not motivated by the food she is offered. In this case, try a variety of foods until you find a selection of treats that she finds exciting. A dog bored by dry biscuits may light up over baked pork loin. Also try different delivery methods, such as a squeeze tube to lick or a tossed treat to catch in the air or chase on the ground.
Consider the calories your dog is getting in the training treats and reduce his meals accordingly.
For training, the most useful treats will be:
- Small (usually “pea-size”), for quick consumption and high quantity to use
- Soft, for quick consumption
- Easy for the human to handle (not too wet or slimy, ew)
Below are some ideas for quality treats that are inexpensive and easy to prepare. Speaking of inexpensive, some dogs and some training sessions call for a training treat that is irresistible to a lot of dogs in the way that candy is irresistible to a lot of children – hot dogs. Mm, corn syrup and chemicals! Microwave diced hot dogs for a bit and they’ll smell great to the dogs and be less slimy to handle for you. Hey, it works, it’s not forever, and it’s hoped that they’re getting wholesome food for dinner.
Meat: Dogs love it. It’s easy. You can simply dice your own leftover steak, etc. if it isn’t too spicy.
Keep an eye out for sale beef such as “London broil” and round roasts, and pork loin, chicken, or turkey. Slice into thin slabs and bake at medium low heat (300º F) for 45 minutes, turn slabs over, and bake until meat is dry. Dice into treats and store in the refrigerator or freezer. Beef liver can also be baked and diced and is often considered a high value treat. Use liver and pork sparingly to avoid digestive distress. Baked chicken is crumbly, but it can be boiled or dehydrated into homemade jerky in a low oven.
Travel Tip: When you’re training away from home, use an insulated lunch tote to carry bag(s) of treats that need refrigeration. Sandwich the food between reusable cold packs and it will keep for hours.
Cheese: Diced cheddar cheese. String cheese torn off in small bits as needed. A high volume of cheese may cause digestive distress, but small amounts are usually okay.
Veggies, Fruits: Some dogs will be enthused about slices of raw carrot or apple, and many will look at you like you’re crazy. Blueberries are an easy treat to deliver to dogs who find them rewarding. Do not give toxic grapes or raisins.
Off the shelf: My personal favorite is Happy Howie’s Gourmet Meat Rolls. (happyhowies.com or jefferspet.com) They are grain-free and sugar-free, contain real meat, and are packaged in dense, shelf stable rolls that are easily diced, easily delivered, and enjoyed by many dogs.
Natural Balance dog food rolls are sold in most pet stores and have similar advantages as Happy Howie’s. They contain sugar, but they smell like jerky and dogs tend to love them.
Other widely available, small, soft treats that don’t require refrigeration (but do usually contain “junk food” ingredients) include Zuke’s Mini Naturals, Cloud Star Tricky Trainers, Bil-Jac Little Jacs, and Crazy Pet Train-Me! Many, many others are available. Higher quality treats that are harder and/or need to be broken up include Bravo! Treats, dehydrated lamb lung, and freeze dried liver and other meats.
The list could go on and on. Have fun discovering the treats that your dog finds rewarding!