As a positive reinforcement trainer, my dogs (and the dogs I am training) get a lot of treats. And I mean, a LOT. In a "perfect" clicker training session, the dog would be getting a treat at least once every 15 seconds. That high reinforcement rate makes the training session fun and keeps the dog actively engaged in learning. It also prevents giving him the opportunity, or time, to get distracted and practice unhelpful behaviors.
However, that high rate of reinforcement also means our dogs may be getting hundreds of treats every day. It is important to keep our dogs physically healthy as well as mentally heathly, so we need to prepare accordingly. Listed below are a three suggestions to help keep your dog fit and happy when using food as treats:
1) Keep treats SMALL! This is hard to do, but keep each treat about the size of a tic-tac. It helps to prepare treats beforehand to make sure they are a good size (and to keep track of how much your dog is getting in treats).
2) If possible, use your dog's normal kibble. Most people think 'treats' and pull out a bag of large milk bones or pupperoni sticks. But in reality, many dogs are more than willing to work for their normal meal-time kibble, which is usually smaller and healthier than other processed treats. Save those high-calorie "dessert" treats as a special once-in-a-while treat, or as a "power treat" if you know you are asking your dog to pay attention to you in a difficult environment.
3) Reduce your dog's normal meals. Measure out how much kibble you are going to give your dogs as treats during training, and be sure to subtract that amount from his normal meals. It is okay if he is only getting a very small amount at each meal, as long as he is getting the remainder during the rest of the day.
Often when we are discussing reinforcement, we are talking about giving the dog food as a treat, however it is important to keep in mind that reinforcement can be whatever the dog
wants most at that moment. This means that sometimes instead of a food treat, reinforcement might be a minute of playtime with a favorite toy, a game of tug, extensive praise or petting, or access to something the dog wants. For example, instead of treats, our cat (who is NOT food motivated) learned clicker training by having the front door to open every time he earned a click. This moment of gaining access to go outside was far more exciting to him than any treat would ever be, and he was more than willing to work in order to make that fun moment happen more often. Sometimes you have to be creative and think about what it is that would be most rewarding for your dog at that particular moment. Need a few ideas? Check out our list below!
* Playtime with a stuffed animal
* Game of tug
* Fetch with a favorite toy or frisbee
* A brand new toy!
* Playtime with you (petting, praise, gentle wrestling etc...)
Access to desired things such as:
* Entrance to a room (or outside)
* Permission to smell an area they want to get to
* Opportunity to greet and get attention from visitors
* Permission to sit on a piece of furniture
Food (remember, tic-tac sized pieces!)
* Fruits (small amounts, no seeds: pumpkin, apple, banana, melon, blueberries)
* Vegetables (peas, carrots and green beans are good healthy options)
* Scraps from a healthy dinner
(NOT fed from the table, and only things which you know are safe for your dog to eat. Be sure to avoid things with garlic, onion, sugar, xylitol, grapes/raisins, chocolate, coffee, or spicy foods)