Tuesday Topics #31 - Phasing Out Treats

close up of Cabana's face with a Natural Balance turkey food roll in front of it, she is trying to pull the string at the top to open itI was so pleased to hear that Guide Dogs for the Blind recently selected Natural Balance as their food of choice. When watching the TV show "Eight is Enough" in the 70s (for those of us who are old enough to remember it), who would have ever thought that we'd be feeding Dick Van Patten's dog food to our pets?

I think both Katrin and Ally had suggested Natural Balance food rolls as a highly motivating treat for recall. After much skepticism and distaste at the thought of cutting up this sausage-like meat, I have found that NOTHING makes Cabana come running like this stuff. I can call her away from just about anything (except cat poop, which is the bane of our walking existence) when she knows I have Natural Balance food roll pieces in my treat bag.

blue cutting board with big chunks of food roll cut up on itCutting up the food roll is not as disgusting as my vegetarian self had feared it would be. It has a slightly mealy texture, almost bread-like, and a fairly strong odor, which is probably a good thing since Cabana immediately knows when I've got a treat in my hand. A medium sized roll is enough for one month of treats, and each of the hunks in the photo above amounts to a day's worth of treats.

about 30 little ziplock baggies with cut up pieces of food roll inside eachI chop the roll up completely, divide into equal portions, and freeze them in snack-size ziplock baggies. Each morning before heading out the door for our walk, I grab a baggy from the freezer. I really like this method because it helps me keep much better track of how many treats I'm giving Cabana. As I mentioned in my previous post, I try to be vigilant about how much Cabana eats. By having a measured amount of treats in the baggy, I know exactly how much to cut back on her regular meals.

Which brings me to my Tuesday Topic. I've heard that the difference between a good trainer and a great trainer is knowing when and how to phase out treat rewards. But I've seen the GDB trainer in my neighborhood still giving his 4-year old dog treats, so maybe some people never phase them out? I don't give her many treats in the house, but when we're walking, I mainly give them to her for recall and to help with dog distraction. But do I want to rely on having treats handy forever?

Have others been able to successfully phase out treats? Does treat-less good behavior come more naturally with age? Do you replace it with just verbal praise (seems sort of short shrift in comparison with Natural Balance morsels)? Or do you just save treats for the biggest and best behaviors?

Ally and Eclipse  – (August 10, 2010 at 10:26 AM)  

I so badly wish I could use Natural Balance food rolls for Eclipse's training! They cause him too much gas and so the bad definitely outweighs the good. So glad you gave them a shot, they're commonly referred to as "doggy crack"!

For a distractable dog like Cabana who's leash walking and recall you've been working on for a very long time use treats until she's 100% solid then start phasing them out so she'll come when called twice and get treated and loved up on, the third time not treat but still loved up on. It's called the variable reinforcement I believe. She still gets paid for coming but not always so she'll come because "maybe this time" she'll get paid. It's a gradual process and some dogs are never weaned off treats completely due to various reasons, their prey drive is too strong, too distractable, not as social as most dogs, reactivity, etc. For things like a reliable recall I think it's important to use treats randomly for a very long time so the behaviour doesn't extinguish.

Katrin  – (August 10, 2010 at 10:31 AM)  

Should eventually be able to phase out treats. That being said in order for a behavior to continue it must be on some form of a random reinforcement schedule. And that reinforcer has to be something your DOG deems reinforcing not something YOU think your dog should deem reinforcing.

When I train my dogs I use treats, praise, toys and play as reinforcers. my dogs are all highly food motivated and that is a great way to start teaching new behaviors or shape new behaviors with the clicker. But eventually I want a dog who comes when call or sits or downs or who does agility equipment because I ask when I ask regardless of whether a treat is there or not.

You want to get away from bribes and go to rewards. A bribe is where the dog knows you have the food and is lured or enticed to do the bahavior because the food or other reinforcer is there. A reward is something that is given once the bahavior is complete for a job well done, but isn't there staring them in the face the entire time.

the way I teach my students to get off the rewards and move to a random reinforcement schedule is thus:

Start with the dog in a low distractions area, say your living room. Put your treats on a chair in the room near you and the dog. have NO treats on your body, not in a bait bag, not in your hand, not in your pocket. Only treats on the chair.

Cue your dog to do a behavior he knows well such as sit or down. If the dog is used to you only doing this with a cookie in your hand he will probably stand there not doing it. be patient. wait him out. Don't repeat the cue as then he will start to wait for multiple cues and not just do it on the 1st cue.

Be patient! Just wait! Let him puzzle it out. When you dog does the bahavior, IMMEDIATELY grab a treat off the chair, give it to him and PARTY!! Praise him, pet him, make a HUGE deal out of it.

Pretty soon he will start to do the behaviors without the cookie on your body. As he gets better move the chair farther and farther away until it can be in a completely different room and your dog will still do the bahavior and then run with you to get the reward in the other room. Then start leaving the treats other places, such as on the kitchen counter or in the treat jar on top of the fridge not just on the chair.

The other thing to start doing is only give a treat every so often once the dog has gotten the hang of doing behaviors without treats on your body. So say I ask a dog to 'sit'. He does, I praise lavishly and pet him on the chest, but not cookie. Maybe the next time I ask for a 'sit' we will go get a cookie out of the jar, but has to learn that not always.

Katrin  – (August 10, 2010 at 10:35 AM)  

oh yes around here we call Natural Balance roll "Puppy Crack"!!!

JackDaddy  – (August 10, 2010 at 10:38 AM)  

I would like to hear about this as well, as my vet doesn't like the treat reward system either!

Ro  – (August 10, 2010 at 11:22 AM)  

Jayden never knows when he's gonna get a treat for a behavior. When we are working, I always have treats on me, always. But he doesn't always get them. At first, he got a treat for every little job well done, during our bonding and training process. Now, for the normal every day stuff, he doesn't always get a treat. But sometimes he does. Keeps him on his toes hehe. I still always always always do a jackpot when we get to my door, only because I want him always to be eager to find it, so I know he'll always get me home. But for everything else, he just never knows when he'll get one. I always use treats when doing our obedience sessions, but I always vary the treats and vary the routines. While he doesn't always get a food reward, he always gets priase and a good boy. Last night was a prime example of a behavior with no reward. It was time to take him outside and I couldn't find him. So I just patted my legs and said come and he came running. I didn't have treats on me, but he got praise. It's all worked really well because he does the behaviors all the time, no matter if I have food on me or not. I doubt I'll ever completely phase out rewards. Rewards are fun for me too. ;)

Alphini's Puppy Raiser  – (August 10, 2010 at 11:43 AM)  

I like Katrin's method. I really think the dogs do even better when reinforcements are random and they never know if a treat's coming or not! I need to use them less with Alfie now he's getting a little older. Those Natural Balance rolls are terrific -- dogs love them, and you can feel good about giving them too!

Raiser Erin  – (August 10, 2010 at 12:00 PM)  

I wish I could phase Arwen completely off treats. She has the weakest stomach in the world so everything but homemade treats give her horrible diarrhea. So I make her treats about once a month. I'm starting to phase out treats for common obedience like sit and down (two things she's actually having trouble doing quickly in her old age) but I want to know she'll "halt" and "heel" everytime I ask her when we're on a walk. I don't usually use a leash in my neighbourhood because she knows not to go off the sidewalk and to wait at the curb for me, but I'm always afraid that she'll decide to be naughty just once and get hurt by a car or another dog. So if I don't have treats I use the leash always. I don't think I'll ever completely phase her off treats because she like to run ahead of me, but she's just one of those dogs that probably needs treats for certain commands. Cabana is probably a lot smarter than Arwen so she'll probably understand that even though she doesn't get a treat she should still do it. I would always have treats on hand just in case you really need to get her attention.

Erin and Co.  – (August 10, 2010 at 12:10 PM)  

Depending on the behavior, depends how fast I fade lures.

Typically I'll use the lure for the first three - five times we are working on the new behavior,before introducing the random reward system.

Basically it keeps the dog guessing as to when he gets a reward. This works well, as we know if the dog gets rewarded the first time, he/she is ALWAYS going to keep trying to see if that same behavior works the next 50,000,000 times. :)

I.E. (Counter surfing, garbage digging, pulling, etc..)

Which is good, since I'm so ADD I forget to bring things like treats out EVERY single time my dogs are off leash.Or when we're out in public. etc..

Lauren and Don  – (August 10, 2010 at 12:27 PM)  

I wouldn't start weaning Cabana off the food for dog distractions and come until she is 100% solid and undistracted. Don has been on the food protocol for distractions all his life, and will be going into formal training still on the food protocol. When Cabana is no longer distracted by dogs, I'd start weaning her off the food, maybe not rewarding her as often or just when she does something really good. I don't think I'd ever stop the food completely and, like Ally and Eclipse said, if you reward occasionally but not every time she'll start thinking "maybe this time I'll get a treat".

Some dogs (like Don) aren't that crazy about praise and attention as others, so I'm keeping him on a food protocol until he's completely undistracted.

As for come, I always reward Don. My leader said that some dogs are fine when weaned off the food every time, as long as you give them a treat every now and then. But if Cabana has a solid "come" I don't think I'd change anything for now :)

Kari in WeHo  – (August 10, 2010 at 4:22 PM)  

you are so very organized! I wish we could get to that place

don't forget, we moved to dogisgodinreverse.com

Heather  – (August 10, 2010 at 5:04 PM)  

I love Natural Balance rolls! They're one of those things that don't gross me out so much (I too am a vegetarian), the texture is also really great for training.

Treats are actually one of the things I am really bad at with training, I give out way too many...so I don't know much about fazing them out. But I do know that dogs work really well with variable reinforcement. If when you're out with Cabana and you call her to come, you should sometimes feed her half the bag in one go, other times just one, other times three or four. Sometimes even just a 'good girl'.

The thought that there might just be a jackpot waiting for them seems to really drive the dog's brain. :)

Mango  – (August 10, 2010 at 5:33 PM)  

Hey! I eat that Natures Balance kibble and momma just brought me some of that rolled up food too.

I don't always get treats. No I do not. When I go on walkies I only get cookies if there is something challenging like another doggie or a walking human and then I get treats for ignoring.

When I am learning a new trick I get LOTS of treats, but then when I get better at it I have to do more than one trick before I get my reward.

PeeWee hardly gets any cookies when he is doing his agilities because his reward is to run and jump but he gets TONS when he finishes.


Becky  – (August 10, 2010 at 7:12 PM)  

Sounds like a treat we need to get. Yummy! I think Cricket will always get sporadic treats for her good work. It is such a great added incentive and fun way to learn new words/commands. I know the motivation isn't about the treat as a guide but I the random reward is awesome. Treats just add a little bit of fun to life. I just have to make sure I don't mix up Cricket's treats and my treats in my pocket :D

Lacey  – (August 10, 2010 at 11:24 PM)  

Pat Miller and Patricia McConnell suggest that treats are never phased out completely. One of them, I can't remember which, even thinks dogs should continue to be treated for using the toilet outside- they are dogs- they don't care where they go so it's our responsibility to reward them for going where we want them to. Given their experience, education, and reputation, I go ahead and follow their advice. My eleven year old still gets regular food rewards as well as the puppy and the one in between. We use Red Barn rolls, very similar to the product you're using.

Sierra Rose  – (August 11, 2010 at 1:13 PM)  

Great idea on freezing the baggies :) And, will try this treat on recall practice! We have some, but haven't opened it yet... Glad Cabana loves these :)

Hugs and snaggle-tooth kisses,
Sierra Rose

Jen  – (August 14, 2010 at 3:50 AM)  

Interesting topic. I don't use treats too often with O.J when he's working. I used them when we began training at home to teach him to find new places, and I still do that now if we're learning a new route until he knows it well. Then I stop them, and feel bad for the first few times because he is expecting one and doesn't get it, but lots of praise keeps him happy too.
I use treats sometimes for recall at the beach, as he can get quite distracted there.

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