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I'm trying to train my dog in a variety of behaviors, both positive (sit, loose-leash walking, etc), and avoiding negative (don't flip out at that dog/person). I've got a couple kinds of treats that I use, small ones for repetitive training, and bigger ones for big rewards (the trainer I saw previously called them jackpot treats).

When I go to the pet store I'm overwhelmed by the number of choices and in the past I've pretty much stuck to the same kind of treats each time. I have heard that changing up the treats you give to a dog keeps the dog from getting bored with the treat, which would make it less effective in training. Is this a valid idea, should I be getting a different brand/flavor of treat each time, or should I instead just try to stick with a treat that I know my dog likes and is healthy?

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The key point is: it is up to the dog to decide if something is an actual reward or not.

So you have to know your dog and see if he's working "enthusiastically" or not. If he's distracted, sniffing around, taking the treat without really paying attention to you and going back to its business it means that the value of the treat is not high enough.

Make it worth working with/for you.

I find it easier to work with home-made dog treats: pieces of chicken, or other kind of meat, pieces of hot dogs, etc. Even if dogs are not obligatory carnivores, proteins are always a good choice, chicken doesn't have too much fat, and you have total control on the quality. Then you can reduce the amount of dry/wet kibble you feed him.

To be more specific regarding your question: that way it is super easy to have some variety, and, from personal experience, I think it always helps because he gets extra motivation discovering what's new today. You

I'm buying different sorts of commercial treats just for my own convenience: I don't have anything to prepare, I buy only dry treats, that are easy to carry in my pockets, etc. Looking at the ingredients entering the preparation of these treats I've never been able to conclude that some are really healthier than others, so I just buy randomly, see if he likes it and in any case I really limit my use of these treats: doesn't make sense to feed him excellent quality food and then give him too much commercial treats of "random" composition.

A side note concerning other types of rewards: yes, praise and toys are good rewards but I use that only for informal training sessions (when I often doesn't have treats with me) or to reward a big chain of behaviours (for example: if your dog is heeling correctly, you can do some complex exercice and reward him with a toy at the end). But treats are really the reward of choice because it is convenient, it doesn't distract the dog too much, etc.

Adding a quote for Karen Overall's Manual of clinical behavioral medicine for dogs and cats:

Foods that are high in protein may help induce changes in brain chemistry that help the dog to relax, so choose a protein treat over a carbohydrate one.

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This is my opinion from common sense, so feel free to correct me.

The reinforcement in training works because the doc links "Behavior A" with "Something good happens". Sticking to the same reward every time really helps the human most: we KNOW that giving the dog a certain treat is something he likes, so we can have an easy go-to-measure we can use as a reward.
Rewarding him with words and attention would most likely work just as well, but both are tricky: we are already giving the dog attention while training anyway, and our tone of voice can change subtly just because we have had a crappy day. So, treats it is. (Or, in case of clicker-training, the click!)
For training, I would set aside the more special treats anyway. If your dog gets tired of THOSE, then chances are you are overfeeding or over-rewarding anyway.

For the choice, let your dog guide you. If you feel like he is getting tired of what he gets, change. If you try a new treat anyway, and discover the just LOVES them, set them aside for training. If your dog seems totally hapyp with what he gets? Just stick to it, and make life easier for yourself.

Happy training!

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The key to picking a training treat is to "A", choose something the dog enjoys, and "B", something smaller than you'd think and soft to boot.

Choosing something the dog sees as a good reward is essential. Some people use the dogs kibble as a training treat and feed his entire daily meal this way. It's not an effective treat if your dog doesn't want it though. For instance, lets say you're trying to use pieces of carrot as a regular reward and chicken as a jackpot. That sound great as an escalation of reward, but if your dog hates carrots, you'll never get enough try from your dog to give a piece of chicken. You need something that equals when you get the "hypno-stare" from a dog when you're holding a plate of food. If you've got a dog, you know what I mean. It's got to be good, so use high value treats when training and give them frequently and often. Most trainers don't give nearly enough rewards. The other thing to remember about jackpot rewards is that they don't necessarily need to be a better food, but can be a larger quantity of the same food. So if you're training with little bits of hot dog and you're giving him one piece per trick, if he does especially well, you make a big deal over him and give him a whole handful.

Next, make sure it's something small and soft. You aren't trying to feed your dog a meal (unless you're using his supper to train him). So keep in mind that you're giving him small little rewards and you can do fewer repetitions if he's taking forever to chew a hard cracker treat and you can't do any if he gets full before you're done. Coupled with a dogs short attention span, especially when you first start teaching them to learn, you should keep sessions to no more than 15min. Reward frequently and often with a treat that should take more than about 3 seconds to swallow. Think bullion cube for a large dog and pea for a small dog.

So you can use what you like. You can even test your dogs preference by laying out different treats spaced apart and seeing which he attacks first, but once you find one he likes, I'd stick with it till they don't seem effective.

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Treats are about positive incentive for your dog. Variety isn't essential as much as finding something your dog likes. Ideally, you'll find a 'high value' treat, that your dog gets properly excited about getting rather than a 'ok' treat.

For example - we usually have a brand of dried small treats that we like, which are great for in the pocket for an ad-hoc recall drill or otherwise reinforcing commands.

However for 'proper training' we get the big guns out - from experience this is (and depends on dogs):

  • bits of liver. (can 'dry' them in the oven).
  • shredded ham. (Packet of, tear up with your fingers).
  • tripe sticks. (many pet shops sell these - they're one of the better options for putting in your pocket as they're quite dry).

Seems to be 'things that are stinky' particularly. Some dogs (mine included) really like cheese too. I'd suggest avoiding that generally, because dogs aren't so good at processing fat (and some are lactose intolerant). So it's not so bad as an occasional treat, but probably not great for a training session.

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