Last week I took delivery of 32 pounds of dog treats. Thirty-two pounds! Imagine the possibilities!
As I lugged them all out to the garage, I was suddenly struck with the fear of, “What if at the end of these 32 pounds my dog is no more proficient in training skills than he is today?” That’s because I tend to be somewhat aimless in my training at times:
Many of the people who attend my Dogs and Babies classes have the opposite situation. For whatever reason, people come in thinking that it’s somehow “cheating” to use food in training or they have been taught ineffective techniques for food reinforcers and are, understandably, not enamored of the results.
The Thousand Treat Challenge
Then it hit me – I can solve both problems with one low commitment game. If you already give your dog treats freely, the Thousand Treat Challenge will add more precision to your training. If you are new or even a little opposed to giving treats, it won’t hurt to give it a limited try. After all, you do feed your dog, don’t you? You may as well come away with your dog better trained for those calories he was just going to eat out of a bowl.
- Choose a behavior or skill you want your dog to perform better/differently
- Set aside 1,000 treats (see below)
- Over the course of two weeks, spend your 1,000 treats to practice and reinforce progress
What Does 1,000 Treats Look Like?
My combination below of home-dried hot dogs, freeze-dried liver treats and Natural Balance Roll-a-Rounds took up less than one sandwich bag and weighed 8 ounces. The trick, of course, is that effective treat reinforcers are very small and highly delicious (to dogs). Dog trainers know this but pet owners are stuck trying to make it work with a bag of dry biscuits.
Choose a variety of palatable treats and cut/break up your 1,000 pieces. Mine had to be dry and relatively non-perishable because I’m bringing them to class next week, but you can feel free to chop up bits of leftover meat from dinner or cheese or the trainer’s standby – rolls of Natural Balance or Red Barn as pictured above. Set aside in a designated container or bag to draw from throughout the course of the challenge.
Make a Plan
Don’t let this step slow you down! The Thousand Treat Challenge is all about doing! Pick anything! Here are some ideas:
- Reinforce the behavior of looking at you
- Teach Down to a snazzy hand signal or a whisper
- Practice standing around people (not jumping!)
- Improve elements of leash walking
- Reinforce coming when called
- Help your dog be comfortable with touch – maybe even work on nail clipping!
Don’t know how to train these behaviors? Someday, I will finish writing/videoing these and other easy-to-improve-with-very-little-effort behaviors. In the meantime, check out Emily Larlham’s wonderful set of YouTube videos for tons of quick ideas and step-by-step instructions. Really, just close your eyes and pick one and you’ll do fine!
If you want to make a written plan, allocate the number of treats you want to “spend” on each aspect of the behavior. This will help you keep on track and monitor progress. Write down:
- Here’s what my dog does now
- Here’s what I’d like it to look like instead
- List a few aspects you can work on and how many treats for each
- Measure progress
For example, a dog that sits well in the kitchen might benefit from practicing 50 times in each other room (not all at once, of course – remember, you have two weeks for the challenge). If you notice the dog only sits when you inadvertently “announce” training time by being too obvious with the food in your hand, you can decide, “I am going to spend 200 treats practicing with empty hands,” and so forth until you have the behavior you want. One thousand treats give you lots of chances to provide clear information to your dog!
Take the Challenge!
I have a one year old Flat-Coated Retriever who likes to eat all kinds of junk. I am going to start with teaching him to prefer looking at me over dive-bombing for dropped food.
What will YOU do with your 1,000 treats?