Photo of a woman facing a dog on leash

Are you Misusing Treats When You Train Your Dog?

I meet a lot of people that say “my dog will only come or stay if I have a treat”. My answer to that is: “You may be using the treats incorrectly!”. For the most part, when you’re training come and stay, the treat should not be present. Treats should be in a pouch, in a closed fist and/or behind your back. It should be about the BEHAVIOR of the dog, not the reward. The reward comes later, as a reinforcer. The only time a treat should be visually present is when you are luring (see notes below for definition of lure) a dog into their first sits, downs and during leash training for heel work. For the sit and down, the treat should be replaced by a hand signal ASAP. Other than that, the dog shouldn’t see your treats on a regular basis. Obviously they know you have them but, if you’re using the treat to get your dog to come or stay, I urge you to change that by surprising them instead. For come you have to ask yourself “What can I do to get my dog to come to me?” This means: Am I EXCITING enough, positive and fun? Or am I simply standing still and saying their name? That’s not very enticing. Move your body, say their name in a happy voice and make coming to you FUN. Mix up your rewards between food, toys, praise and petting (surprise your dog with ALL once in a while).

  • The reinforcer (the treat, toy, praise, petting) comes AFTER the behavior.
  • Watch your timing (the MOMENT they get to you reward heavily and taper down as you go)
  • Try not to reach for the treat while your dog is coming to you or, while they are in their stay as this will distract them from the behavior. 
  • If you are returning to a dog in a stay, wait until you are RIGHT in front of them to offer the treat and say “good stay”.
  • Don’t keep reaching for treats all the time and it you have them in your hand, have them behind your back. 
  • The dog should be focusing on YOU, what you’re asking,  what you’re working on and the treat comes later. 

Because food is a Primary Reinforcer for dogs training your dog using treats is a very effective way to change behaviors. Some dogs will even train with their dry food (kibble) which can be a great way to utilize their mealtimes for training. You can also try mixing their kibble half-and-half with treats. If you aren't using your dog's meal for training, be sure you deduct the same amount from their next meal so they don't become overweight.

Here are some ways treats are used in training:

  • As a lure. A “lure” is when we use the treat in our hand to “guide” the dog. This can be useful when teaching a beginning sit and down (so the dog follows the lure to complete the behavior). A lure is also very helpful for beginning leash training to keep the dog by our side while we teach them the cues. We release the lure as the reward when the behavior is complete. When we release it, it them becomes a reinforcer.
  • As a reinforcer or “reward” is when we give the dog something for completing what we asked, no matter how small or large the task. We are using a reward to let the dog know we like what they did so it INCREASES the likelihood of the task (behavior) being repeated (hence, we are reinforcing the behavior). One official definition of a reinforcer is: A stimulus, such as a reward, that in operant conditioning maintains or strengthens a desired response.

With all of this being said, it’s important to be aware of WHERE the treat is during the training. If you aren’t using it as a lure (see #1 above), it shouldn’t be in plain sight. 

If you'd like to see the video that goes with this post, you can do so here:


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