One of the very first things I tell people to bring to a group class or have prepared for their Private Training sessions is food/treats: small, pea-sized, stinky, and attractive treats.
Why use treats?
If it's not obvious from my previous blog posts that I'm a fan of using treats, let me clear that up right here and now. I absolutely believe that food/treats are valuable tools when training your SideKick:
Everyone needs to eat - your SideKick included.
Food is usually pretty high up there in terms of what a dog finds rewarding.
Food is easy to carry; it's easy to have with us; it's easy to deliver quickly. It's just easy!
Food is quick and is a reliable reward in a variety of contexts and for a wide variety of behaviors.
I should note, too, that I use "food" and "treats" as interchangeable terms because I don't distinguish much between "dog" food and "people" food for a dog. To your SideKick, it's all just food; and, to us, any and all food can be made into treats by shredding, slicing, dicing, and breaking it up into small pieces.
Though I view food and treats as valuable tools, not everyone does right away. Every now and then, a person asks me, "When can I get rid of the treats?" (and it always feels like this is the first night of class or the first private session - when we haven't even started using treats with our dogs yet!).
Treats are motivation; they're rewards; they're currency we can use to pay for the work our SideKicks do for us and with us. We can use treats to make behaviors more likely to happen and see them more and more!
Generosity Pays Off
At a seminar I went to last year, a quote the presenter (Chirag Patel) said stuck with me:
"Pay a lot for quality and duration comes for free."
This means, when you're teaching something new or difficult, rewriting an old habit, paying the big bucks - and a lot of it - helps make the new, difficult behavior the new habit! The more you pay for the things you like to see, the more you'll see them; and the more you're seeing the new behaviors you like, the less you'll see the behaviors from the previous (bad) habits.
No dog needs treats forever and there's no need for you to have hot dog fingers the rest of your SideKick's life. When we're starting to see some new habits coming to light, we can start thinking about gradually using fewer treats.
Quitting Cold Turkey Causes Problems
The key to using less treats is doing so gradually! Going cold turkey with the treats...Your dog is definitely going to notice the difference...
Instead, slowly (over the course of weeks or maybe even months) reduce how frequently you offer treats. For example, you might not give a treat for EVERY Sit anymore; my dog is four and a half years old, so I'm not either. BUT, you still want to pay your SideKicks for the Sits that are hard to offer or the great ones you like a lot:
Sitting at the dog park (distracting environment)
Sitting in front of his dinner bowl (when there's something tempting)
Sitting after bringing back his ball (during an exciting time)
Sitting while you are playing with another dog (in a distracting environment and exciting time with tempting items around)
And so on - you get the idea!
If you notice that your dog’s behavior regresses, they're doing some of those old habits, or they lose interest in training, you're probably going too fast. But, really? Try not to overthink it; most of the time, if you're thinking about using less treats, you should probably still be using a lot of them!
Always Carry Treats
Regardless of where you're at with your SideKick - giving lots of treats or working on giving fewer, I always recommend carrying food or treats with you. Having the treats with you means you have opportunities to reward things you like and work on specific behaviors in new environments. When you have treats, you are prepared to work even when you didn't think you would be, such as emergency Recalls or when you and your dog with reactive behaviors encounter a trigger on your walk.
In summation, use treats; use lots of them; take your time using less of them; but, like the Scouts, be prepared for anything!