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Training should start at typically about 8 weeks of age. At this age, they can learn basic puppy training cues such as sit, stay and come. Puppies start learning from their mother as soon as their eyes are open. Some breeders even begin training at this age.
Whatever age you got your puppy, start training it the minute you bring it home. This includes house training. Dog behaviour begins solidifying in the juvenile stage, at about 6 months old. The older the puppy or dog, the more challenging it can be to train it, especially obedience and where to potty.
Some owners may feel that this is wrong, or feel guilty for making a dog do something by bribing it with food. Some may think treats aren’t essential because a doggy will naturally do anything to make them happy.
So is it bad to train a dog with treats? No. Here’s why:
Sustenance for survival makes treats the primary reinforcer. Dogs are genetically programmed to figure out what behaviors get them food. Other primary reinforcers include: water, air, sleep, shelter and reproduction.
You can give them quickly to your pup the instant they display the desired behavior or when they obey a command. This is counted as one repetition. Compare a game of tug with a soft treat. Which reward can be completed in 1 rep – the game or the treat? The faster the reward cycle, the more repetitions you can carry out per training session. Thus, the more effective the training will be.
As famous dog behaviourists have pointed out, a dog’s nose plays the most important role in how it processes its environment. By engaging its nose, you control the dog’s brain and its body just follows.
For example, when you lower the treat to the ground in your closed hand, your dog will lower its head close to the ground. This makes it easier for you to move it into a “down” position. Eventually, Fido associates your hand with holding a treat even when you’re not. This allows you to progress to training with less treats.
Using food to teach a dog good behaviour in the beginning is inevitable. It is called positive reinforcement.
There are two ways to classify doggy snacks. One is to go by value ranking: high, medium and low. Another is by type: fast-eating, slow-eating, soft, hard, healthy, low-calorie and less healthy. Let’s start with value-ranked treats first.
Perception of value here is from the dog’s, not human’s point of view. A dog highly values treats that tend to be extra smelly (to the human) and something that it doesn’t get outside of training sessions. This type should be used for:
These are usually semi-moist or dry snacks that don’t smell as much as high-value ones. They are given more frequently than high value treats. When to use them:
Being the most frequently used type, they have less attraction than medium value treats. These are usually crunchy or soft treats that are the least pungent. Some people use kibble as a low value treat. When to use them:
As the name suggests, they are any kind of snacks that can be eaten in a single bite. If you have a large piece of jerky, you can cut it into small pieces and that becomes a fast-eating treat.
These allow you to carry out many repetitions of the task or trick which you are training your dog to master. Repetition is the key when it comes to training. Your dog can get bored or lose focus if the time gap between each repetition is too long or if it takes a few minutes to finish eating one treat.
Even for large dogs, a pea-sized treat is plenty. For small dogs, you can use even tinier pieces. You might feel like you’re cheating your dog, but as long as he’s getting something he loves, he won’t care if it’s just a tidbit or the whole big piece.
Soft dog treats are easier and faster for your dog to eat. Hard treats such as biscuits are fine but they can be crumbly. Some dogs get distracted by looking for all the crumbs on the floor. Soft treats can be in the form of commercial treats, such as ice cream for dogs or blanched vegetables.
These take the longest time to be eaten and are meant to be so. For example, a chewy air-dried treat. They are great for teaching a dog to stay in a specific place or to just encourage it to lay quietly while you do something. For example, for dog pen training or for helping a dog overcome fear of its crate.
What is meant by “healthy” here:
Dogs get their calories or energy from the protein, fat and carbohydrate in their food. Carbohydrates are derived from both vegetables and grain or grain-free flour.
Most of the protein in a dog’s diet goes to either building or repairing its body (muscles and organs). Only the balance is burnt up as fuel for energy when its diet is short of fat or carbohydrate. Therefore, the bulk of calories from treats come from their fat and carb content.
What constitutes a low-calorie treat:
The fewer the calories in the treat, the more you can give your dog without breaking the 10% per day rule.
Avoid using high-fat, high-salt human foods such as bacon, sausage, french fries or potato chips. You don't want your dog to end up with pancreatitis or kidney disease. You would also like to use less highly processed commercial treats that have high carb and chemical content. At the end of the day, all those rounds of treats do add up to quite a lot.
The pros choose treats based on the objective, stage and difficulty level of a task. But at all times, they will keep the treats in tiny pieces unless it is for a task that is mentioned earlier – to make a dog stay in a place that it fears or dislikes, or at the end of a series of tasks.
For puppies, they choose soft treats which are easy to eat and the best for repetitive, fast training sessions since puppies have shorter attention spans.
Professional dog trainers also have a mix of treats in a pouch so that a dog cannot predict what it will get and stays motivated at all times.
Each dog has a different preference. Some go nuts over greens or fruit, some less so. Some are equally motivated by both greens/fruit and stinky dried organ meat, like tripe. Find out what makes your dog tick by doing this:
Don’t go by quantity, go by percentage of caloric intake, i.e. the 10% Rule. The maximum treats you should give per day for whatever reason should be 10% of your dog’s daily calories.
For example, if your dog needs 400 calories per day, they should have no more than 40 calories from all the treats. The other 360 calories should come from their meals.
If you do a lot of training on certain days, reduce the overall meal portions for those days. Try to invest in protein-rich rather than carbo-rich ones. You can even use your dog’s kibble as low-value treats.
How much is too much? If Fido sits after you ask it to, you don’t need to shower it with a hand full of treats. Just one little piece will do.
Thus, how many treats to give during training depends on how many repetitions you do for each task. The overall rule is to not exceed the 10% rule. And if you must do so, cut down on its meal portions.
Treats should only be used to reinforce good behaviour and to reward obedience. You shouldn’t use snacks to bribe them. Bribing tells your dog that for everything you request, you must give it something to eat. That is wrong. Eventually, your dog will just ignore you.
What situation constitutes a bribe? Here are a few examples:
Treats are great for initially getting your dog’s attention, but eventually you should rely on them less and less. Instead, share reinforcement by giving your attention or affection.
If you go past the 10% rule often enough, you might end up with an overweight dog. A fat dog has a high risk of developing a host of illnesses.
Just like the concept of supply and demand in economics, when the supply exceeds the demand, the perceived value of the supplied object lowers. Giving treats to a dog randomly without it doing any work is very unhealthy for its attitude. Why work for something when you’re going to get it for free later?
Also, if you only use high value treats, your dog may not respond when you switch to low value ones. However, if your dog is already perfectly obedient, a “just because” treat is fine. But if it still needs training, keep treats for training.
Dog training treats are a powerful and essential tool, especially in the early stages of training. However, they must be used wisely so as not to negatively affect the dog’s health and attitude. The best dog training treats are designed to be low calorie, very tasty (to a dog) and small enough to be given many times every day. Lastly, keep in mind that dogs are more concerned with the act of getting a treat than the tidbit’s size.
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