Ask the Trainer: Should I use treats in obedience training?

Pat Brown-John,  Five-Time Canadian Schutzhund Champion

Pat Brown-John
Five-Time Canadian Schutzhund Champion

Our training expert, Pat Brown-John, is a five-time Canadian Schutzhund champion, with multiple national and international titles, spanning a dog-training career of more than 30 years.  We are extremely fortunate that a trainer of this caliber has joined our blog. Periodically, we will post some of her thoughts and tips to help people with pets as well as service dog owners.  I know you will find her to be an invaluable resource.  (And, for my American readers, enjoy Pat’s use of the “King’s English” in spelling!)

One of the most common questions we have received is whether or not to use treats while training one’s dog.  Here is her response:

Of course you can teach a dog to do obedience for treats but as soon as the treats are gone so is the obedience.

I remember you, Dr. B, telling me about your own training for your first service dog. Before you could be assigned a service dog you had to prove you could make a correction.  Actually you were not going to be able to finish the course without this skill.  They didn’t make cookie feeding an essential part of your training.  On your blog [April 4, 2012] , you gave an example of a very harsh case of the elephant in San Diego, which no one in their right mind would condone but there is a place in obedience training for an appropriate correction.  A correction should stop the unwanted behaviour not put a dog into distressed fight or flight mode.

When teaching a dog, first there is the “showing” stage.  There are no corrections here.  When the dog has had success with the new exercise and has proven he can do what you are asking–then and only then–if he refuses, there is a correction.  You will see the dog immediately respond.  A dog who understands exactly what he is supposed to do will do so willingly.  A willing dog will try harder to please than a unwilling one. When there is a strong competing motivation, the dog must know that he has no other option than to comply.

Then we move to “proofing.”  The dog must do the same task under distraction.  We put distractions in the work so the dog learns that those distractions mean nothing. You will see the dog look harder at you while he is being challenged with distractions but when given praise for being right, his confidence will grow and he will become secure in the exercise.

It’s important to note that while  teaching any exercise, from beginning to end, the trainer gives calm, gentle praise.  At the end of the exercise there can be some excitement from the trainer to show the dog how well he did.  Treats can be given then, as well, but not in place of the praise.  In every dog and handler team there is a leader and a follower.  In every successful team the leader is the human.

Here is an example:  You have a young dog and have trained him to walk beside you for treats.  He is wonderful at this job.  One day you’re walking on the street and your dog spots another dog on the opposite side of the street.  (You are relaxing and enjoying the walk.) Suddenly your dog bolts towards the other dog, dragging you with him into oncoming traffic.  A treat is not going to work here, however much you try.

Sometimes the natural drives in a dog must be overruled by fair and firm obedience.  This is when the treat-trained dog is usually sent to a trainer.  That way the owner can feel comfortable saying he has never used a correction on his well trained dog!


Pat Brown-John
All About Obedience

Her philosophy involves earning the dog’s trust with kind but firm, consistent teaching. She believes each dog is unique and deserves to be trained well in order to be a productive member of a family and society.

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2 Responses to Ask the Trainer: Should I use treats in obedience training?

  1. Norman W Wilson, PhD June 27, 2012 at 3:52 pm #

    Great article. I am delighted to see someone really say don’t train the dog by using treats. Every commercial one sees, dogs are being given treats. Very informative article. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Cindy Wilson June 27, 2012 at 6:02 pm #

    Great artlicle. I find that many owner are constantly providing their dogs with treats, not only for training but as a daily snack. Result is overweight animals. How many times in the wild do you see animals receiving their daily snacks. I have had over 17 dogs so far in my lifetime and never have used treats to train. Animals that learn to respect and love their owners respond to praise and if necessary reprimand. Our society has fallen into the habit of using food as a reward rather than love and respect. Time we rethought the longterm success of this.

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