How to Train Your Dog With Treats

Treats can help seal the deal when your dog is learning behavior

Golden retriever with dog biscuit on snout, elevated view
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Some dog owners are unsure about whether to use dog treats when training a dog to learn a new trick or behavior. But treats simply help you to get the behavior you want from your dog, and then let your dog know that it performed the behavior correctly. 

Dogs tend to learn faster and have more fun when they get rewarded for good behavior.

Reasons to Use Treats for Training

Using treats during dog training is not more like bribery than training. Treats should be looked at in the same light as your paycheck. Even if you have a job you love, and a great boss, chances are if you stop getting a paycheck, you're going to stop showing up for work. Dog treats are your dog's paycheck. They are simply a means of making sure your dog shows up eager to work when it's time for a training session.

Use Dog Treats to Lure

One way dog treats are used is to lure dogs to do the behavior you want. For example, when you train a dog to sit, you can start by luring your dog with a treat. Hold a treat close to your dog's nose, and slowly move the treat back over its head. Most dogs will stick their noses up to follow the dog treat, and as their nose goes up, their bottoms go down. Luring works well on a number of other behaviors, including down and roll over.

Reward Your Dog With Treats

Dog treats are also a great way to reward your dog to recognize it has done something right. If you lure your dog into a sit, give it the treat the second its rear end hits the floor. This works for all behaviors: you have to give the treat immediately so your dog associates the action with the reward. You can encourage your dog to repeat behaviors you like, such as lying quietly on the floor during dinner or sitting when guests come through the door, by rewarding it with a treat to reinforce the behavior.

Keep Dog Treats Small

You don't have to give your dog a handful of treats every time you reward it. Instead, use the smallest treat your dog will work for. For most dogs, just a small nibble of something is enough to do the trick. Some dogs even work for their own kibble, one piece at a time.

If your dog becomes less responsive to the treats you are using, you might need to up the ante by making the treat more delicious. Many dog trainers use tiny bits of cooked chicken, string cheese, hot dog, or liver.

Problems and Proofing Behavior

If you're in a particularly intense training phase and giving a lot of treats, your dog may gain weight, which is not ideal, especially for larger dogs. Obesity in dogs causes a number of health problems, so it is important that you adjust your dog's regular feedings to account for any treats he gets during the day.

You don't want your dog consuming more calories than it needs because it is getting treats during training sessions. Keep in mind that your dog's treats should only make up about 10 percent of its daily diet.​ 

If your dog sees you holding a treat or notices you're near the treat jar, it may signal that a treat is going to happen if it does what you want. In essence, you may be teaching the dog only to listen or react when it knows a treat is imminent. Take care to conceal treats, only showing them to your dog and providing them when your dog has completed the behavior you want.

One misconception people have about using treats for dog training is that their dogs will only perform for treats. Don't worry! You won't have to walk around with your pockets stuffed with treats for the rest of your life. Once your dog has learned a new behavior, you can phase out the treats, only giving it a treat every once in a while. After trying this method, most dog owners find that using treats to train a dog makes training fun and rewarding.