As a dog trainer, treats are important to me. Positive reinforcement dog training is largely about rewarding behaviors you like. The reward may be praises and cuddles. It could be a game of tug. But if you want to get the job done quickly and with maximum smiles and tail wags, food is usually the way to go.
You can — and should — use your dog’s regular food for training. But it’s a good idea to have reserves in stock, for more intense training work and challenging situations (working outdoors or in a room full of other dogs, for instance). It’s not hard to find treats a dog likes without ever going to a pet supply store. Hot dogs, turkey, bacon, and cheese will all do the job. But the ideal treat should please the human as much as it pleases the dog. Well maybe not really as much, but it needs to appeal in certain key ways.
Personally, my requirement for the ideal dog treat is that it should NOT be any of the following:
- Big. One key to effective dog training is to get a lot of good repetitions of a behavior in quick succession. It’s hard to get that kind of high rate of reinforcement if your dog has to chew and swallow a whole milk-bone. You also don’t want them to fill up too fast. Ideal treat size is generally smaller than your pinky nail.
- Crumbly. Because your treats need to be tiny (see above), it’s nice when a treat breaks apart without leaving you with pockets of crumbs.
- Slimy or sticky. A treat needs to be given quickly and without a lot of extra movement or fanfare. Anything too wet (like sliced ham) or at all tacky will result in the treats sticking together, or sticking to your hands. Stopping to wipe off your hands isn’t going to help you speed up your dog’s learning process.
I’m especially particular about using the right treats when it’s wintertime and I’m working with a dog outside. Inside, I might be able to sit at a table and toss out small pieces of hot dog or bits of Kraft singles, but outside? With gloves on? In the cold? I’m not a masochist.
So, here are my favorite non-slimy, non-crumbly, appropriately-sized dog treats:
This is essentially a deodorant roller filled with gravy. One or two licks is an irresistible reward to most dogs. Each lick is a tenth of a calorie. I have some dog trainer friends who’ve experimented with making their own versions of these, which would certainly be more economical and probably healthier for the trainee. I commend their efforts.
I have one of these in every pocketbook I own. They travel very well and last a long time. When I’ve worked with people who have dogs in their offices, I’ve advised putting one of these on every desk. They’re easy to deliver and will keep your hands from getting covered in slobber.
The only downside about this thing is that it stinks. And, in some cases, it’s the stink that just keeps on stinking: gas may ensue.
But, for the novice dog trainer looking for a reward that can be delivered easily and can go anywhere, this is a winner. Fortunately, it doesn’t smell so bad when the top is on. (I lost the top of one a few months ago, and used my deodorant’s lid on it over night until I found it’s rightful top. When I returned the Ban top to its bottle, it brought with it a smoked liver stench that permeated the entire bottle and forced me to re-up on deodorant. By that point, I needed it more than ever: For a week, my dog fell asleep licking my armpits.)
This is a tube of peanut butter with a thin nozzle at the end. It looks like something meant to decorate a cake. It’s actually made to be squeezed inside of a Kong — a rubber “Work to eat” toy. But I will often skip the toy and give the dog a lick off the end of this thing (it comes in other flavors too: Cream Cheese and Yogurt).
Made from FDA food-safe silicone, the TreatToob is a refillable tube that looks like it was made for lube. But it’s actually meant to be filled with liverwurst, or whatever your dog’s poison is: baby food, peanut butter, Cheez Whiz, canned pumpkin, meat paste, whatever. One or two licks is a good reward dosage.
Like the Lickety Stik and the Kong Stuff’n, the Toob is effective at keeping one’s hands free of dog saliva. It’s reusable, which makes it the most economical offering on this list.
These are soft treats that are wonderfully small to begin with — about the size and shape of a tiny marshmallow — but they also can be made smaller without any crumbling. I often throw a whole bunch in my treat pouch and then will break them apart with my thumb nail as I dole them out. One treat can be broken up into at least four pieces, if not more. Zuke’s makes similar products which I like, but they’re a little more waxy than the Tricky Trainers, and tend to get hard and stale faster.
I am especially fond of the cheddar flavored variety, as they smell good. Well not good. But not as bad as my liver-y pits.