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How to Treat Train Your Dog the Right Way

Whoever came up with the saying, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks," probably hadn't tried treat training yet. When there's food involved, you'll be surprised at how much more likely your pet will be to obey. We spoke with Dana Rocco, the shelter manager at the New Rochelle Humane Society and a trainer with more than 20 years of experience, to learn her best treat training tactics.


Remember -- you're using the treat training method because you believe in positive reinforcement.

Don't lapse into negative language or skip straight to punishment if things don't go your way immediately. You might be eager to get your dog to learn the "top five" basic commands ("come here," "go away," "get back," "get off," "down"), but patience is key. There's a difference between being "firm" and being "harsh" (and let's not even play around with "cruel"). "In dog lingo, 'positive' means reinforcing, or making stronger," Dana reminds us. "If you want your dog to sit, and you're rewarding that action with a treat, you're reinforcing that moment. And it's far more effective to reinforce the good than to punish the bad."

Don't let your dog get too reliant on the treats.

Keep in mind that praise without food is the ultimate goal. Slow the treat-giving gradually until you're only using verbal commands. "Many people believe that they have to give their dog a treat every time he or she does something right," says Dana. "But actually, you should only be using the treats in the beginning of the training process. As the dog learns, you can slowly wean him off treats, though it doesn't have to happen immediately or completely."

Photography by: tara sgroi

Curb your enthusiasm -- however well-intentioned it may be.

"Dogs might not be able to figure out everything in this complicated world of ours, but they're really good at figuring out what works when it comes to treat training," Dana tells us. "If you reward them for doing something halfway, they'll recognize that." You love your pets, so, naturally, you want them to be happy and full of (healthy) treats. But just because your dog sort of, kind of, maybe listened to a command doesn't mean he or she qualifies for a treat. By rewarding those "halfway" behaviors, you could be inadvertently teaching your pet that almost doing something (say, sitting halfway down, or fetching a ball but not bringing it back), is enough to get a treat -- or, worse, you could be teaching them that it's all you were hoping they'd do in the first place.

The treat in question should be, well, a treat.

"Let's say someone was hoping to reward me for a job well done with mint chip ice cream, and I didn't like mint chip ice cream," Dana laughs. "Would I be interested in repeating whatever it was I did so well? Probably not." Make sure to try different treats to see what your dog likes best and responds to consistently. If he's not interested in the reward, he certainly won't be interested in the behavior it's intended to promote.

Size matters.

There's a reason you're using tiny treats instead of, say, filet mignon. "The smaller you can get away with, the better," advises Dana. "Then, instead of using two big treats to reward just two examples of good behavior, you can use twenty treats to reward lots of little things." And remember, what is bite-size for you might not be bite-size for your puppy. The process of eating the reward shouldn't take much longer than the rewarded act, or your newly well-behaved pup might not be motivated for long.

Don't forget to use your voice.

Just because you're using food to entice your pup doesn't mean you should forgo vocal commands entirely. Try pairing each treat with an upbeat "good dog!" -- and remember that your tone of voice matters just as much as what you're actually saying. "Your dog's going to factor in everything from the weather outside to the look on your face to your tone of voice. Association is really, really important," stresses Dana, before adding simply: "When your dog does what you want, be happy!"


Make your training method known. 

Unfortunately, in the case of puppies, a little confusion can go a long way. If there are people in your family, friend group, or circle of acquaintances who consistently spend time with your beloved pup, make sure they're also using your positive-reinforcement method. The last thing you want is for your dog to be frustrated with different training styles. "It's almost as though your dog is learning a language. If everyone's speaking a different new language around them, how will they ever catch on?"

Move quickly!

Don't waste too much time before throwing your dog a bone for his efforts (so to speak). Standing back and admiring his new trick is only natural, but if too much time elapses, he'll begin to question the series of events. Or, more likely, he'll forget them entirely. "The moment your dog's rear hits the ground after you ask him to sit, say 'good dog' and then follow it up pretty quickly with a treat. If your dog turns around and starts sniffing something, and that's when you choose to give him a treat, he's going to think you rewarded him for sniffing," jokes Dana. "Timing is everything."

Replace a behavior you don't want with one you do want.

"So your dog knows how to sit. Great! But does he still jump at the door, or on houseguests?" Instead of thinking about what you don't want him to do, think about what you do want him to do -- and then use that action to replace the more problematic behavior. Encourage him to sit and practice his new "language" rather than reprimanding him for jumping up.

Keep it healthy.

"With children, rewarding constantly with sugary sweets and junk food is out of the question -- no matter how well-behaved they are," says Dana. "So why is it acceptable with dogs?" Frankly, it shouldn't be. Keep in mind that there are healthy, all-natural alternatives for your pets, just like there are healthy, all-natural alternatives for your children.