Treat Selection & Preparation
Updated: Jun 22, 2022
It does sound pretty simple. Get your clicker, snacks for your canine training partner, and go out to work some training magic. If you are like me, just before I considered heading out the door, I realized there were a lot of decisions to be made about treat selection, preparation, convenience, and all sorts of things. Gads. And there I was, pleased with myself about having found the time (and confidence) to train at all! As I progressed through my Karen Pryor Academy education, I found even more reasons to pay a lot of attention to "treats." I hope this post will add some clarity, and simplify this process.
Let's talk about treats for a minute. For my purposes here, the term "treats" simply means something edible that the learner will work for, and again, for my purposes, I will assume you have a canine training partner.
Some treats are considered "high value" treats: hot dogs, string cheese, and baked chicken are good examples of high value treats. Treats that are considered middle of the road treats are such things as commercial dog cookies and packaged canine snacks. Some dogs will work for portions of their own kibble. That's pretty low value, in my opinion, but with a dog that has dietary restrictions that may be necessary. Treats that are not part of the dog's normal diet should only be 10% of his daily diet. In working with LGDs this is pretty easy to manage.
Now, let's consider how you plan to deliver the treat. Do you intend to pop the treat in the dog's mouth, or toss it? Some treats travel through the air better than others, and are found on the ground, or in the grass, more easily than others. Are you working with both partner dogs at the same time? If so, being able to have a fist full of treats may be handy, rather than having to take the time to reach into a treat pouch.
Here are a few points to consider as you plan your training session.
How big of an "ask" is the training you plan to do? Challenging training should be compensated through high value treats. My adult and adolescent Maremmas will happily work for cookies. My Border Collie, however, read the KPA handbook. Jessie will participate for cookies, but she will work on speed dial for cheese or chicken! So, in working with her, I usually put a mix of treats in my pouch so that she is never sure how amazing the treat will be that she just earned.
What do you want your rate of reinforcement to be? In a twenty-second rapid-fire session I use treats that can just be swallowed, rather than treats that need to be chomped on a couple of times, because that slows my training. Even chewing twice will distract my dog, and change the level of enthusiasm and timing of my session. If I am grabbing (capturing) offered behaviors in the course of a day I may give the dogs a whole cookie, so that they can wander off having just "scored" right out of the blue.
How do you want to deliver the treat? I don't toss high value treats because they can't always be found by the dogs, for instance if the treat lands in the grass. The dog knows the treat is there somewhere. If the dog goes back to search for the treat later he may also choose to guard that area from livestock. So, when I toss treats, I usually toss whole cookies so that I can see them if I need to help the dog find them.
Let's talk a bit about treat delivery strategy. Yes, the dog earned a treat because you clicked, but delivering a treat can also be a way to move the dog. This can be valuable. In teaching hand targeting, a clicker savvy dog will stand right there in front of you, waiting for his next opportunity. Tossing his earned treat can move the dog away from you. That allows you to ask for your hand target behavior again. In working with a pair of dogs, using hand delivery for the dog you clicked, while tossing the treat to the partner dog, can be helpful because that can feel more like working with just one dog, to you and to the dogs, because it keeps physical distance between the dogs. There are times, used minimally please, that tossing a treat past something you are trying to shape your dog to target can give you the opportunity to click as he moves near the target. Treat placement can be viewed as an art form; I see it that way. It is astounding to me how wisdom behind my treat placement choices can hinder, or help me with my training goals.
Now that we've talked about how to use treats, let's take a look at the treats themselves. I will share with you a few of my treat options and strategies.
These are my favorite "low value" treats. All my dogs love them. I often pack the front pockets of my jeans with a stash of cookies when I head out to do chores on the property. The cookies hold up well, in that they don't crumble and make a mess of my pockets. It is easy for me to break them up, in halves or quarters, as shown, while I am in the moment with my dogs. When I do choose to toss treats, I toss the whole cookie.
My high value treats are typically cheese, turkey hot dogs, or baked boneless, skinless, chicken breasts.
I love the convenience of using string cheese. The packaging of this product allows me to easily stash a few in my back pocket without having a mess. It is easy to shred off bits of it into the mouths of tiny pups in their early training. I have a refrigerator in one of the barnyard buildings. My puppy trainers all know they can eat the string cheese that is on the top shelf; the bottom shelf is for cheese that has been carried in pockets!
The photo above shows eight ounces of cut-up cheese. I often put half a cup of cheese, or so, in baggies and freeze them for use later.
This is cut up-cooked chicken breast. I freeze baggies of this too. To prepare the chicken I often bake several pounds at a time. Once it is cooked, I drain the chicken well, usually overnight. I may also press some of the fat out of it between paper towels, or let it dry on the counter for most of a day. This makes feeding good, nutritious chicken less messy for me to handle.
To prepare hot dogs for use as treats I cut them in quarters, and then down to pieces similar in size to the chicken pieces pictured above. I microwave it slightly, on paper towels. I then press some of the fat out of the pieces, and may let them dry as I do the chicken. They are much, much less messy to use as treats when prepared this way.
And now to treat pouch strategy. The KPA treat pouches can be tossed into a washing machine, but I seldom need to do that; in the photos to follow you'll see why.
I have found that if I roll back the edges of the baggie it is easy for me to reach into it while I am training. When I am finished with training, I place what's left in the baggie back into the fridge or the freezer, and put my clean pouch in the cupboard. Easy.
So there you have it! Tricks of the trade, as they say.