One of the things that makes people resist the concept of positive methods training is the use of treats to “pay” the dog for desired behaviors. Among other critiques, they often think this will make the dog fat. The easy answer is to remind people that they can reduce their dog’s mealtime food. However, I do have to admit that it’s a challenge to get the balance right when you have a dog that is pretty much afraid of everything. When you’re doing treat-based counter-conditioning all day every day, it’s hard, but not impossible, to manage the dog’s nutrition. In addition to the dog’s calorie intake, you also have to bear in mind that many treats sold in stores are really the equivalent of junk food and not very healthy in large quantities.
Until recently, we managed by mixing a portion of Spencer’s daily kibble with boiled chicken. Spencer loves chicken, and having the kibble soak up all the good chicken juice raised the value of the kibble to the status of treats. We would then always carry higher value treats too (liver, cheese, raw beef and sometimes small cookie-type treats) and use those in particularly challenging situations.
This system was recently upset by the vet prescribing special kibble that contains supplements to help prevent fare-ups of Spencer’s dysplasia. The new kibble disintegrates easily when soaked.
Our solution has been to move up the treat value ladder. Chicken is now Spencer’s baseline treat. Instead of boiling it, we cook it in the oven and collect the fat which can then be mixed in small quantities with the new kibble to coat it and make it useful for training or for making his Kongs more appetizing.
Spencer thought he was in heaven when he started receiving chicken, liver and cheese more often. The second day, when we were getting ready for our morning walk, he smelled what was in my treat bag and jumped vertically up and down on four feet in a way that can only be described as going boing-boing-boing! It was so cute that Greg and I both burst out laughing.
The bonus is that he has been making progress even faster with higher value treats. And that in itself is a lesson. Irène once asked me if the kibble was valuable enough to work for counter-conditioning, and I confidently replied yes, but now I wonder if we could have made more progress earlier if we had made this switch sooner.