Not All Treats Are Equal When Training Your Pet

According to the principles of Operant Conditioning, animals (including us!) change their behaviour depending on its consequences. Behaviours that result in a desired consequence are repeated or strengthened whereas behaviours resulting in an unpleasant consequence, or none at all, are weakened or avoided. This means that animals do what works for them; what they find most rewarding (reinforcing) in any given situation throughout their lives. You can learn more about Operant Conditioning HERE.

There are a number of factors that influence exactly what an animal finds rewarding or reinforcing. These include it's species, breed/breed type, temperament, personality, past experiences, likes and dislikes, health status, age, the immediate environment, time of day etc.

Why use treats when training you pet?

Most animal trainers recommend food as the best reward for desired behaviours. Food is classified as a "primary reinforcer" or biological need. Primary reinforcers include food, drink and shelter. Food is innately reinforcing and it works exceptionally well in training to teach dogs (and all animals) desired behaviours. But not all food is equal. Just because you think the treats you're using are rewarding to your dog (or other animal), doesn't mean they are the most rewarding or effective treats to use.

Why treat selection is important

When choosing the type of treats to train your dog (or any pet), you should be aiming for high value treats for your particular animal. This is because the higher the value of the food, the more motivated your dog will be and the quicker they will learn. Many dog owners use their dogs regular kibble or dry food in training and, if you have a very food motivated dog, this might work just fine. However, most dogs tend to find their kibble relatively low value, as they eat it every day. In general, foods dogs find highly valuable include cooked chicken, cheese and hotdogs/devon but this varies depending on the dog (see Figure 1 for a general indication of treat value for most dogs).

Figure 1: Hierarchy of treat value for most dogs

To find out which treats your dog values most, why not conduct a choice experiment? This involves lining up a few different treat options (e.g. kibble, liver treats, cheese, chicken) and, during several trials, seeing which treats your dog consistently prefers. If your dog shows a clear preference for certain treats, these are the treats you should train with.

Another indication a particular treat is high value is how quickly your dog consumes it. If your dog scoffs the treats at lightning speed that's a pretty good sign their high value. But if your dog sniffs them a few times, picks one up, drops it and picks it up again before eating it, this indicates the treat is not very high value. Variety is also important. So try to mix it up a bit and avoid using the same treats day in, day out.

What about other rewards?

Although food is the best reward to use in training, it's important to combine it with other things your dog finds rewarding. These other rewards are referred to as "secondary reinforcers" and can include praise, pats, favourite toys, games, going for a walk and the opportunity to play with another dog. Secondary reinforcers are extremely useful for when you don't have food on hand, or you want to phase food out, and you still want to reward desired behaviour.

Again, it's important to establish if the secondary reinforcers you are using are actually rewarding to your dog. We often assume our dogs enjoy pats, but sometimes they don't. Here's a video to help you determine if your dog find pats reinforcing. The best indicator of whether your dog finds something rewarding is an increase in the behaviour you're rewarding. If the behaviour is not increasing (or strengthening) then the reward you're using is not reinforcing enough.

So now you know how important treat selection is in training, why not put it into practice and see what difference it makes. We'd love to hear your experiences!

Piranha Puppies: How to bring an end to the BITE!

I’ve seen several clients recently with puppies and young dogs who bite and mouth them REALLY hard, often causing scratches, bleeding and bruising. Puppies vary in the intensity and duration of their biting and chewing. Given plenty of appropriate items to chew on, many will not direct this behaviour towards their human family. When they do, however, it can vary from mildly annoying to painful and scary.

Why do some puppies bite hard?

Biting and mouthing is normal puppy behaviour. Puppies explore the world with their muzzles (smelling, tasting, chewing) and biting and chewing on things, including our limbs and clothing, helps puppies learn about the world around them. It also helps to relieve pain associated with teething. This means that biting and chewing is a self-rewarding behaviour and will continue while it provides desired consequences (pain relief, entertainment etc.).

When puppies are with their mother and litter mates they learn many important social behaviours, one of these is called “bite-inhibition”. Bite inhibition is a dog's ability to control the pressure of its mouth and teeth, to cause little or no damage to the recipient of the bite. 

During normal play and rough housing young puppies inevitably bite each other and their mother. The high-pitched yelps given off by the receiver of the bite signal to the offender that the bite was too hard and it hurt. The consequence often being the play session is over.

With repeated interactions puppies learn quickly to modulate their bites to avoid conflict. Sometimes, puppies are separated from their mother and litter mates too early, missing this important learning opportunity, and may be prone to bite harder than normal.

The good news is that given time, most puppies will eventually grow out of the biting stage. That said, there are steps you can take to avoid being bitten and to teach your puppy to bite their toys instead…

How to stop the bite:

You can reduce the likelihood of being bitten by your puppy by following these tips:
  • Encourage your puppy to bite and chew on appropriate items such as chew toys, chew treats and feeding toys. Reward your puppy with attention, praise and high value treats for chewing on these toys. You can also put treats inside toys or smear them with peanut butter to make them extra tempting.
  • If your puppy’s teeth contact your skin immediately give out a high pitched yelp sound (to make the unwanted behaviour) and remove your attention from your puppy (completely ignore them) for a few moments. As soon as your puppy stops biting immediately reward that behaviour with your attention and praise. If your puppy continues to bite you remove yourself from the room for several minutes. Repeat as necessary.
  • As you’re moving around the home or backyard, flapping clothing can tempt some puppies to latch on. Avoid pulling away and creating a fun game of tug. Rather, try not to make a big fuss. Stand still, be boring and ignore your puppy until they stop or throw a ball or toy away from you for your puppy to chase, allowing yourself safe passage.
  • Do not allow your puppy to chew or mouth your hands (or feet) in play. Also avoid using your hands to rough house your puppy. Use toys instead. You want to teach your puppy to be gentle with your hands and feet and to bite and chew their toys instead.
  • Have a variety of different sizes and textured toys available for your puppy to play with. Rubber toys (e.g. Kongs), rope toys, squeaky toys, balls and treat puzzles are popular choices. Tug toys such as the Tether Tug or Home Alone are great choices for dogs that love tug games, once they’re a little older. It’s also important to rotate toys and introduce new ones every so often to help prevent boredom.

With a little time, patience and consistency, your puppy will learn that chewing on their toys is WAY better (because it results in lots of additional reinforcement) than chewing on you (which results in being ignored).

Now go have fun with your puppy!