Most dog owners know about using food/treats for training… but judging from the recent statistics about the increase in dog obesity, we feel that there may be a lot more to consider than what meets the eye.
Since dogs are such a big part of the family, it's no wonder that they are following in human footsteps, with about half of the population estimated to be considered overweight. And the consequences can be detrimental to their health, just as it is for us... but we have the choice, and they do not.
Overall Healthy Habits
Just like any dog training program, it's important to have a plan, and for everyone in the household to be consistent. It's good to know what your dog's daily caloric requirements are, then divvy it up between 2-3 meals, training sessions throughout the day, expected rewards (for routine behaviors such as going into their crate or coming into the house), and incidental rewards/special occasions.
Most dog foods include a recommended amount to feed them daily, but they likely don't account for extra treats that may be given throughout the day, because everyone is different. We suggest considering your dog's food guidelines as a starting point, then using your dog's age, weight, body type & condition, activity level, and treat intake to guide the amount you regularly feed, then adjusting as needed.
If you have multiple people in your home with a hectic schedule, find some way to keep constant communication about the dog's intake, whether that be a whiteboard in the kitchen, a feeding chart in the mud room, or even a mobile app that everyone has access to. It takes a village to not overfeed your dog!
It's also extremely important that every household member, family, friend, and/or acquaintance that interacts with your dog know what kinds of things they can and cannot have, and/or at least ask your permission before feeding them anything.
When giving treats to your dog, remember that they likely won't know the difference between a full biscuit and one that has been split up into 4 pieces (and no matter what you do, most of them will always give you that look afterward, like, "is there more?"). Learning any new skill will require a great number of repetitions to master, so it's best to always give the smallest morsel you can muster whenever possible.
Keeping them Busy
No matter your lifestyle, there will undoubtedly be a time when you cannot actively entertain your dog, so it's important to know what you can give them that is safe, healthy, and can keep them engaged and occupied. If you're feeding them good food like Kafka's, you're not going to want to give them junk food for treats… you invest too much to keep them healthy. This is where we can have fun and really get creative!
The most obvious place to start is their regular food. If you are able to, the best thing you could do is to use their mealtime as a 'keep-them-busy'-fest… why give them food in a bowl when you could make mealtime last so much longer by having them "work" for it? There are dozens of food-dispensing toys, puzzles, and games on the market, and many of them don't require our participation (they may still need supervision though). And freezing it beforehand can buy you even more time!
If you do buy store-bought treats, chews, and/or bones, be sure to look for ones that are safe and healthy… look at the ingredients list and avoid any chemical preservatives or bleach (like what they use to make rawhides), look at the fat and protein levels in the guaranteed analysis to make sure they align with your dog's needs, don't get anything too small or slippery that could be a choking hazard, and do your best to monitor them while they chew. If they aren't super interested in regular non-edible bones, I like to smash a soft treat into the grooves for some incentive:-)
If you're in an obedience class, you'll definitely need to bring some training food/treats. When our dog was a young puppy, I refused to fill his tiny belly up with 'candy'… I was the weirdo in class with a cooler and some paper towels, hand-feeding my dog his raw food diet right in front of everyone. We don't expect you to do that - although it probably is an option if you wanted to! Just don't touch the doorknobs until you sanitize your hands;-)
Most people use treat bags and some kind of soft chewy treats, but there are so many good options out there. You can get handheld dispensers made for allowing the dog to lick their food/treat out, you can put some safe & healthy 'people food' [cut up into tiny pieces] in a plastic baggie, or you could make your own with any of the hundreds of recipes floating around social media to carry in your treat pouch. If you're feeding Kafka's, you could thaw and portion out their food into a silicone mold with small shapes in order to make the most out of treating.
We like to match the food/treat to the situation… they are not all valued equally by your dog - they will tell you what they like, and how much, through a number of trials. Generally, dry or bland food/treats are "low-value", their regular (fresh/raw) food or moist soft treats are "medium-value", and the really smelly stuff (and things they get only on occasion) is "high-value"… dogs have better noses and fewer taste buds than we do, so it's best to appeal to their sense of smell rather than ours!
Once you figure out which treats are of lower value, begin to use those for easy behaviors that your dog is reliable at doing (like sitting, going into their crate if they like it, going potty outside, etc.). The medium-value treats are great for everyday training practice and for teaching them new skills.
We recommend reserving high-value food/treats for really tough situations… if they are easily distracted out in public and you absolutely need to get their attention, if they are giving you a very prized item [no matter if it was theirs to begin with or not], and/or if you're working on behavior modification for serious behavior issues such as aggression, anxiety, or fears/phobias.
Learn What and How to Train your Dog
Now that you have a feeding and treating plan, it's important to learn what and how to train your dog.
Basic Obedience and Manners are important, but if you have or are getting a puppy, the most crucial thing to tackle is their Socialization, which is not only an activity, it's a developmental stage they go through between ages 8-16 weeks.
Providing positive and neutral exposures (while trying to avoid negative ones) to different types of people, animals, places, smells, surfaces, sounds, and sensations during that time will help them become well-adjusted adults that are able to accept new experiences for the rest of their life.
If you want to raise or create a well-behaved dog, the best thing you can do is to get some good reputable guidance from an experienced professional dog trainer. There are so many resources to choose from for help; classes, in-home lessons, board & train programs, doggy daycares, puppy play dates, and online courses, webinars, and workshops.
No matter what types of services you choose or what kinds of things you're working on, your and your dog's success will depend on what you do on a day-to-day basis, and the consistency you provide.
If you're interested in learning more about consistency, we welcome you to check out our free webinar:
"The 3 components of Training your Dog to be Well-Behaved through consistency"
- Gaining the confidence to know What to Do AND When
- The #1 way to get your dog to Listen to You
- How to continue consistency around Other People
And best of all, you can use all of the tips outlined in this article to ensure that your dog isn't being trained with junk food!
~ Guest Post By: Jenny Schneider, OnDog Training Academy
OnDog Training Academy is an online dog training company founded by husband and wife team, Jake & Jenny, who have been training dogs in and out of their home since 2008. OnDog teaches pet parents how to overcome lack of time to train their dogs to be well-behaved so they can be proud to bring them places. Learn more at OnDogTrainingAcademy.com