Because positive reinforcement based training often uses food as one of the primary reinforcers when working with our animals, I often hear a couple concerns from owners:
1) "My dog is going to get fat."
2) "My dog had an upset stomach from too many treats in class."
We definitely don't want our dogs getting ill or unhealthy, but that doesn't mean we can't use food wisely, and can't in fact have a high rate of reinforcement in our training sessions.
How Small is Small?
The first thing I notice when students show up to class with their bags of treats is that even though we stress "small, soft, and tasty," people might not realize just HOW small we mean.
Below is an example of a popular training treat that we use a lot. The treats are advertised to be used in training and are only 3 calories per treat; nevertheless, they are still way too big in my opinion. Every week, Lowell or I sets aside a few minutes to chop a bag of these treats into quarters:
By doing this, a bag goes much further in our multi-dog household, which is good for the budget as well as the dogs' waistlines.
Here is another example - on the left are 18 treats chopped up from 3 treats of the same type on the right.
Here is an example of a training session with my puppy Royal, working on marking and rewarding offered eye contact. Royal is rewarded nine times in about 27 seconds here for giving me eye contact, and is already starting to build a strong behavior as he immediately looks at me after eating each reward. Royal gets reinforced nine times, but has only actually eaten about 1 1/2 of the treats pictured above. I could have given him twice as much food in only three repetitions had I not broken them up, and I wouldn't be nearly as far along to building a strong behavior, as he would have only been reinforced a third as many times.
When our dogs are working hard, I like to pay them well, but the reality is most skills are first built and strengthened in low-distraction settings. In those settings, my dog may work eagerly for a lower value reward, allowing me to save the best stuff for the toughest work.
If I am training at home or in a low-distraction environment, I often can use my dog's kibble for most of the rewards. Nowadays most of our dogs eat a home-prepared diet, but when a new dog joins the family, I might keep them on a high quality kibble for a while, allowing me to use their daily calories to help them learn new basic skills (I find this especially helpful for beginning loose leash walking, where I want to be able to reinforce a lot). I have even bought the "small bites" versions of the food I'm feeding in order to pack even more rewards per cup.
If the kibble needs a little more punch added, store it in a plastic bag with some small pieces of higher value rewards mixed in (such as hot dog pieces, chicken, cheese, etc.). The kibble will absorb some of that odor and taste, and every now and then your dog will get a bonus when you pull out one of the pieces of high value treats.
Can Your Dog Stomach It?
On the topic of high value treats, remember that these also should be SMALL, and used wisely. Hot dogs and cheese are popular choices, but I tend to prefer lean boiled chicken or turkey breast. It can be torn into VERY tiny pieces, dogs usually do back flips for it, and unless your dog has a particular sensitivity to that protein, it tends to be bland and easily digested (in fact, veterinarians often recommend boiled chicken breast and rice as a bland diet option for a dog with digestive upset).
There are a lot of options out there these days. Treats with a lot of additives, by-products, and preservatives might be cheaper, but they are generally less likely to agree with your dog's system. Even though the higher-end treats might be more expensive, if you are using small pieces you will be spending less and keeping your dog healthier.
What About Those Kongs?
Like all trainers, we love Kongs, and our dogs get them just about daily. You will find lots of yummy recipe suggestions on-line recommending stuffing them with peanut butter, cream cheese, and other rich foods. While we love the power of peanut butter and cheese when we need it, we use it sparingly and most of our Kongs are stuffed with healthy components of their regular diet. Many of our dogs eat raw, so their dinner is frozen into a large Kong (or similar enrichment toy) that they get every night. If a particular dog is on a commercial diet, I can replace some of their kibble with canned food stuffed in the Kong. For special treats, I might stuff some with other healthy foods that they enjoy, such as non-fat yogurt, banana, sweet potato, and pumpkin, with maybe some canned salmon pieces blended in.
Can You Really Blame the Training?
OK, overweight pets are an epidemic in our country. But you know what? I don't think you are really training your dog that much. I love training my pets, but I simply don't have the time in the day to give them enough training sessions that it would seriously impact their weight that significantly. If your furry friend is losing his or her figure, it might be time to evaluate how much you are pouring into that food bowl every day. Let your dog's waist be your guide to how much is right for them, not necessarily the back of the food bag.
This is my 10-year old Jack Russell terrier, Tempo. He is at his ideal weight of 13 lbs, and is lean, athletic, and well-muscled. He is small, so we are limited in how many calories he can take in in a day, plus he has chronic stomach issues that could be easily exacerbated by too much rich food. Nonetheless, he manages to get regular training and enrichment without any negative effect to his health or physique. All our dogs are in this condition. It can be done!
It Isn't All About the Food
Food is great for training, but don't forget there are other rewards also. A throw of the ball, a game of tug, the chance to go for a walk or a swim - all these and more can reinforce behavior as well. Don't forget to build some variety into your reward systems too!
Have you found a great, healthy training treat for your dog? Let us know in the comments!
Angela and Lowell, your friendly Harmony Dog Trainers!