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Stuck on Treats?

by on January 10, 2012

Does your dog sit or come only when you have a treat in your hand? If your dog doesn’t listen to you unless you show him a treat then you and your dog are probably stuck on treats.

Stuck on Treats.

During the initial stages of training, treats are great teaching aids for your dog to learn skills like, sit, lay down, and come.  For example, as your dog is standing, say “sit,” and hold a treat over his head. The typical chowhound stares at the treat hoping and praying the treat will magically drop into his mouth. When staring upward at the treat becomes awkward and uncomfortable from the standing position, your dog rocks back into a sit for comfort, and is rewarded when the treat drops into his mouth. The treat effectively helped you maneuver, show, and reward your dog for the sit position or task that was associated with your word cue “sit.” In theory, after several repetitions with the same maneuver, your dog will make a connection between your word cue and the task. In reality, many dogs connect only the stronger cues with the task. The hand movement and treat are very strong or salient cues that your dog focuses on and connects with sitting. The word cue “sit,” is often masked or missed in the presence of the stronger cues. Your dog has likely learned that “sit” means, a hand with a treat will move over his head and staring at the treat from a sit gets the reward. Consequently, if you remove the treat and/or the hand motion too quickly, your dog doesn’t respond. Your dog isn’t being stubborn or disobedient when he doesn’t respond to your word cue, nor has he just decided that he won’t listen unless you have a treat. Your dog has simply associated multiple cues with one task and if you don’t make a hand motion and show him the treat, half of the information or primary cues are missing. Confusion over which cues your dog should respond to, is further exacerbated when you repeat the word cue and reach into your pocket for a treat. While you may think you are helping your dog learn the word “sit,” by taking out a treat when he didn’t respond to your word cue, in actuality, you strengthen his attention to your hand and treat. He also is rewarded for waiting until you put your hand in the pocket.

How to get un-stuck with Treats.

Getting unstuck or getting your dog to respond to your word cue involves fading out all cues except the word associated with the required task. The treat shifts from an aid that shows your dog what to do in response to a word cue, to a reward that requires your dog to perform the task before he gets the treat.

Keep the treat in your pocket and tell your dog to sit. If your dog sits, give him lots of praise with your voice and hands, and then reach into your pocket and give him a treat.

If your dog does not sit, use the hand motion over his head without a treat in your hand. When your dog sits, praise with a happy voice and petting then reach in your pocket and give him a treat.

If your dog doesn’t sit on the word cue and motioning with an empty hand, use your other hand to gently, physically place him in a sit. Give only verbal praise to let him know that sitting was the correct answer.

Each time you tell your dog to sit, gradually, fade or use less hand motion. After all correct answers give verbal praise and a treat. Continue to raise the bar or the standard of performance by only giving a treat when your dog responds with fewer cues.

The goal is for your dog to perform specific tasks on word cues only. This goal can be achieved only when the treat is shifted from a visible cue to a reward.


The sequence for how you praise is important for getting unstuck on treats:

First, verbal praise. Verbal praise communicates that your dog gave the correct response or answer,

Second, pet. Petting rewards the right answer,

Third, treat. Giving a treat rewards and motivates your dog to listen and repeat giving the right answers when you ask.

Always. Praise with a happy voice for every correct answer, even if you had to help your dog achieve the correct response or outcome. The primary function of happy verbal praise is to communicate to your dog that his response to your words or the outcome was correct. Praise supplies your dog with critical information about his performance.

Give a treat for attempts at the correct response and gradually raise the bar of performance that earns a treat. Every try for the right answer must be a little closer to the correct answer to earn a treat. For example, if you tell your dog to sit and he starts to sit but doesn’t go all the way, you may physically help him, and then give verbal praise and a treat to reward his attempt to sit. The next time you tell him “sit,” raise the bar of performance by withholding a treat until he gets closer to the ground or starts to sit faster without your physical help. Continue to gradually raise the bar and give a treat reward only when he gets closer to your vision of a standard of performance. If you reward only improved performance with a treat, your dog will try harder to make better responses to earn the reward.

Be cautious to slowly or gradually raise the bar of performance so that you set your dog up for success. Your dog is learning with each reward to come closer to the quality of performance you are requiring for a task. If you raise the bar too high too fast or don’t reward your dog’s correct successive responses or tries at the right answer, you will set your dog up for failure and he will become frustrated that he cannot get the answer and give up trying.

DON’T. Resort to showing your dog a treat if he doesn’t respond to your word or hand signal. Physically place him in position and verbally praise. Repeat positioning and verbal praise without resorting to a treat. Watch for and reward the most minuscule effort such as a shift in body weight or a start to sit as you reach to place him. Continue to raise the bar very gradually rewarding even the tiniest of improvement in your dog’s performance. Sometimes you have to start with little baby steps before you can raise the bar in larger increments.

When your dog is responding to your word cues 90%+ times, you are ready to move on to random reward or getting more performance from your dog for less treats.

Happy Tails.

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