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All Treats are NOT Created Equal

My SideKick, Ruby, is a slave to the pull of cheese. And tuna. And peanut butter. Well...in reality? She loves (or thinks she loves) almost anything you have and aren't currently sharing:


SideKick Dog Training | Private Dog Training Milwaukee WI

"Oh...I see you've got something edible there...I'm willing to, at a minimum, sit, stare deep into your eyes, and look all-around adorable for the opportunity to sample it. What do you say?" (I've been watching a lot of The Great British Baking Show on Netflix lately, so the voice I narrate her expressions with recently is a polite British accent...)

She's pretty willing to give anything a shot at least once and is very willing to tell you if it's an appropriate payment for her polite request to share (read as "she's not afraid to spit it out or barely sniff it before asking for something else").

Knowing all of this about Ruby is really valuable information for me! Since I use reward-based training, I need to know what she considers rewarding - what she's willing to work for and if what I have is a good enough reward for what I'm asking from her!

That brings me to the point in the title of this post: All treats are NOT created equal.**

There are three things to consider when you're choosing a treat for your SideKick:

1) What does your dog like/love?

Those of us in the reward-based training business often say, "Your dog chooses the reinforcement." I don't mean that Rover is going to figure out how to get the fridge open and select the best cut of steak in there for himself. That phrase means, if your SideKick finds something rewarding, that's what you can and should use when training. I know several vegetarians, who happily use hot dogs with their dogs - even though hot dog fingers are really unappealing to them - because their dogs adore hot dogs!

Dogs are individuals with individual tastes just like us. And, if you have kids, you know that the promise of broccoli doesn't get the garbage taken out as quickly as the promise of a trip for custard, right? The same goes for your SideKick: the promise of string cheese will likely have your SideKick's butt touching the floor in the middle of a busy puppy class A LOT more than the promise of a handful of dry kibble.

My advice? As always: EXPERIMENT! If you need to, create a list of the food treats you've tried and rank them based on your SideKick's response to them.

NOTE: Do take into account any nutritional limits your dog may have, such as allergies or things your SideKick's tummy may not be able to tolerate.

2) Treats are context-specific.

SideKick Dog Training | Private Dog Training Milwaukee WI

When my Ruby was a puppy, we would often use half of Ruby's dinner to work on some training exercises, teaching her the usual Sit and Down and a couple small tricks, like Shake and Spin. She happily engaged with us and her kibble was perfectly rewarding in that scenario.

However, taking our training outside was a completely different story. She had no interest in her kibble outside in our backyard (and still doesn't), preferring to find a crunchy leaf or a twig to eat. What did get her attention was good 'ole extra sharp cheddar cheese from Aldi; sometimes hot dogs worked, but she's a WI girl at heart and loves her cheese.

As soon as we got to the sidewalk in front of the house, though, even trusty cheese wasn't enough to interest her. The big, wide world of scents is too irresistible and I almost completely fade into the background for her.

The moral of this story is that treats that are perfectly acceptable in the boring quiet of your living room will not be rewarding enough for your SideKick in other contexts (the backyard, the neighborhood on a walk, the pet store, the vet, etc.). Higher value treats - the treats at the top of the list you made - are needed to reward your SideKick for offering attention and working with you in distracting, novel environments.

3) Treats are dependent on the level of difficulty.