For new puppy owners, understanding basic animal behavior and the mechanics of positive reinforcement training will lay down a lifelong foundation of good habits and good behavior.
Why is positive reinforcement (or “treat training”) more effective than the traditional “crank and yank” positive punishment methods of training? When a puppy (or any animal or human) expects to receive punishment in response to a behavior, it can often make them fearful, especially if they don’t know what is causing the punishment. When a puppy knows that they can work for a reward that they enjoy, it makes training fun, and your puppy will feel empowered learning new things!
Try to imagine what it’s like when you’re trying to learn something new! Picture a scenario where you’re learning how to tango with a partner. Would you rather have a partner who clearly and consistently shows you what to do, and how to do it, and praises you warmly when you do it correctly? When you have a great teacher, doesn’t it make you want to try harder?
Now imagine a different scene, where your dance partner punches you in the face every time you make a mistake. Ouch! What’d you do wrong? Can you remember what mistake you made?
Now, put yourself in your puppy’s perspective. How do you think they want to learn?
While there are a handful of exceptions, by far, the majority of puppies (and dogs) will respond more favorably to positive reinforcement. Puppies actually gain confidence with positive reinforcement training, because the environment becomes more predictable to them and they’ll begin to understand what you’re asking them to do.
Tasty, bite-sized training treats are a great reward, or motivator, for the vast majority of dogs. All dogs need to eat! The more appealing the treat (especially treats with a high meat content), the more effort your puppy or dog will muster in order to earn it!
All you need is a treat bag tied around your waist, stuffed with a handful of delicious treats! Here are four ways to use puppy training treats, and why:
1. Use treats so that your puppy can form a positive association to anything and anyone you want.Think of everything that you encounter in your normal life that you would like your dog to react either positively or neutrally to. This may include, but may not be limited to, unknown men and women of different ages and ethnicities, children, other dogs, other animals, cars, bicycles, rain, thunderstorms and fireworks, different surfaces and textures to walk on, different locations such as the veterinary clinic, the pet supply store, the home and garden center, parks with lots of screaming kids running around, and so on.
Let’s say that your puppy is a little nervous around unknown dogs - whenever your puppy sees a strange dog, they bark, growl, and hide between your legs. A common mistake is dragging the puppy over to the unknown dog in order to force a greeting. This type of introduction can be extremely overwhelming and could potentially backfire and make your puppy even more wary about strange dogs.
A better approach is to stand at a distance and let your puppy observe from afar. As long as the puppy is at an appropriate distance (i.e. far enough away), let them quietly observe the strange dog in the distance.
Start offering tiny treats, one after the other, even if your puppy isn’t looking at your or isn’t sitting down. Start walking closer to the dog. As long as your puppy is not reacting to the other dog, continue feeding treats.
Closely observe your puppy’s body language. At some point, your puppy may try to tell you that they don’t feel comfortable going closer - their ears might fold back and they may be slower at taking the treat from your hand. At this point, just turn around and walk your puppy in the opposite direction, away from the other dog, and praise them for being a brave puppy.
With enough repetitions, your puppy will soon learn that other dogs are not scary, and that you always have their back and will protect them. Their body language will change, they will become relaxed and look to you for guidance. It’s at this point where you can start decreasing the amount of treats and eventually phase treats out completely.
In this scenario, you are trying to create a conditioned emotional response to a stimuli (which in this case, is the unknown dog). The puppy does not have to do a trick to earn the treat, instead, the puppy simply notices or is exposed to a stimulus and, regardless of how they react, they get a treat. The reward always FOLLOWS the stimulus (never the other way around), so in other words, the stimulus becomes a predictor for good things to come.
Once your puppy understands that, their behavior will change from being fearful to curious!
2. Use training treats to reinforce desired behaviors.
From the moment you bring your puppy home, you should wear a treat bag around your waist so that you can quickly reward your puppy when they are demonstrating good behavior. Puppies learn quickly and will behave in ways that are rewarding to them.
For example, if you leave out an open trash can with a half eaten sandwich at the bottom, your puppy will find it, and think, “That was the best discovery ever! I’m gonna check the trash can every single time, just in case!” - now you’ve got a puppy who can’t stay out of the trash!
Be aware of what type of behaviors you’re either purposely or inadvertently reinforcing. A puppy may find something reinforcing even though you don’t necessarily agree (for example, pushing a puppy away when they jump on you may be perceived as a fun game by the puppy!)
Here are some behaviors you should reinforce with a steady stream of treats, starting from your puppy’s first day home:
- Whenever your puppy “checks in” with you, i.e. makes their own decision to walk up to you, give them a treat! Your puppy will learn that coming to you is a good thing! This is the beginning foundation of training a solid recall command. The more extensive a history a dog has of coming to you when called and being rewarded, the more likely that behavior will happen again in the future.
- When you see your puppy laying quietly on their bed or any other place that you would like them to relax as an adult, calmly give them a treat.
- Whenever your puppy sits down on their own, give them a treat.
- Whenever your puppy potties in an appropriate spot, give them lots of treats and throw a party for them!
3. Use training treats to calm your puppy down.
For dogs, sniffing out food is methodical work that takes significant concentration. Dogs have an incredible sense of smell, and they prefer to learn about the world through olfaction. Allowing your dog to use their nose to solve complex scent problems in order to find food has marked benefits: it decreases stress, allows them to “be a dog”, tires them out, and leaves them feeling calm and satisfied.
If you have a wild and high-energy puppy, incorporate scent games into their daily routine. You can throw a handful of treats and kibble out onto your lawn (as long as it hasn’t been treated with any pesticides or other chemicals) and have your dog search out every piece. If you don’t have a lawn, this Snuffle Mat by Paw5 is a great alternative! For more advanced puppies and dogs, you could hide the treats around your house and ask them to find it.
Instead of feeding your puppy out of a bowl, put some kibble and training treats into a food dispenser toy, such as this Bob-A-Lot by Starmark.
The more your puppy uses their brain to solve problems, the more quickly they will tire out!
4. Use training treats to teach new tricks.
Most puppies are desperate to learn new things and to please you. If you can find a treat that your puppy really likes, it’ll be fun and easy to teach them tricks!
This type of training involves using a food lure to guide your puppy into the desired position. For example, you may hold up a treat just above their forehead, and your puppy will probably sit down in order to look at it. Use your clicker or tell them, “Yes!” and give them the treat.
You can use luring to teach behaviors like standing on different objects (such as getting on a veterinarian’s scale), going inside of an object (such as their crate), or standing still while you put their leash on.
Timing becomes much more important with shaping. You would use shaping to teach complex behaviors, such as ringing a bell in order to go outside, or retrieving an object to your hand. Shaping means that you take a behavior and break it down into tiny increments, then reinforce your puppy at each incremental step. Using a marker, such as a clicker, to “mark” the instant that your puppy does the correct behavior, will provide clarity and your puppy will have an easier time understanding which behavior you’re reinforcing.
For example, let’s look at ringing a bell whenever your puppy wants to go outside.
- First, hold out the bell. Click and treat as soon as your puppy looks at the bell. Do this for 5-10 repetitions, and then take a break.
- Hold out the bell again. This time, instead of click and treat when your puppy looks at the bell, wait until they sniff the bell, and then click and treat! If your puppy touches the bell with their nose, give them a jackpot, or a bunch of treats all at once!
- Once your puppy knows how to touch the bell with their nose, hold out the bell, and wait. Your puppy will try to touch the bell to see if they get a click and treat, but if not, your puppy will likely escalate to trying to grab the bell or pawing at it. Once again, give them another jackpot!
- After your puppy is consistent about ringing the bell, hang the bell by the door. Your puppy may be confused by the new location, so you may have to take a couple of steps back and click and treat just for looking at the bell. However, your puppy will quickly remember their previous training and try to do the same behaviors in order to get that click and treat.
- This time, when your puppy rings the bell hanging by the door, immediately open the door, run outside, and give them a jackpot of treats!
With a few more repetitions, your puppy will learn that ringing the bell means that a human will come to open the door for them.