We love to be generous with treats with our dogs for a bunch of reasons:
- When teaching a new skill, every treat your dog earns gives them more information about what you want them to do.
- Delicious, high-value treats help you get and keep your dogs attention in distracting environments like while on walks and hikes.
- Using treats in food puzzles gives dogs, who are scavengers by nature, a fun and satisfying way to have independent fun and stay out of trouble.
- Treat-based training is fun for dogs and helps deepen your relationship and strengthen your communication.
But, going overboard with treats is bad for your dog’s health in the short and long terms. To avoid negative health impacts, the general recommendation is that no more than 10% of a dog’s calories should come from treats. We use a variety of different treats in different situations to balance the quality of life benefits of using treats with the health concerns of overusing them. Here are our favorite treats, roughly organized from healthiest to most rewarding.
Before we dive in: Check with your vet or a veterinary nutritionist to make sure these ideas will work for your dog. Always change your dog’s diet, including quantity and type of treats, gradually. As your dog’s treat intake goes up, their mealtime intake may need to go down.
Use veggies when possible.
When training at home, whether teaching new skills or practicing tricks for fun, we use vegetables as treats as much as possible. Two of our dogs’ favorites are diced up baby carrots and thawed frozen peas.
Similarly, we love to use fruit or vegetable flavored baby food as a quick, easy, low-calorie food puzzle filling. Just check the ingredient list for garlic first!
Use dog foods as treats.
Even dogs who aren’t into their own food are often obsessed with other dogs’ foods. And since we’re using fully nutritionally balanced dog foods, these don’t count towards your dog’s treat calorie quota for the day!
You can often get free or low cost sample bags of different kibbles at your local pet shop. Similar to store-bought dog treats, we love the convenience of having a shelf-stable, ready to go option on hand.
If you need a higher value treat to keep your dog’s attention on walks and hikes, we love using canned wet food and the newer moist dog foods. Canned foods with a smooth consistency go perfectly in squeeze tubes made for homemade baby food.
Use the same meat as your dog’s food.
Dogs go gaga for real meat. They love it WAY more than store bought treats. So it’s our go-to for training in high-distraction environments like on walks, hikes, and outings. Blandly cooking the same meat that is in your dog’s food will minimize the risk of stomach upset. Once it’s cooked, chop it up into pea sized pieces for dogs 40 pounds and up and half the size of a pea for smaller dogs.
Use store-bought treats for convenience.
We want to make it as easy as possible to use treat-based training and enrichment, so as a backup, we always keep a bag or two of store-bought dog treats in our cabinet for moments when we’re too busy to cut or prep other treats. We look for treats that have no more than 3 calories each and will often break them in half to help them go further, even for large dogs. They are perfect for impromptu at-home training sessions or food puzzles. They won’t be as useful in distracting or exciting situations, but you might be able to make do in a pinch.
When you really need it, use other meats and cheeses.
Not all meat is equal in dogs’ eyes. Steak, ground beef, tripe, liver, and bacon are often the most coveted, so when you really need the big guns for tough training challenges like working through fear, predation, or reactivity, this is what you’ll want. Many dogs also love cheese, with the stinkiest ones like feta and blue cheese being the most valued.
Final tip: Use the healthiest treat that works.
Your dog is the one who decides if a treat is motivating enough for a given situation or not, so if your chosen treat isn't keeping them engaged, try something more powerful. Needing higher value or more frequent treats does not mean that you have a bad or greedy dog. There is nothing moral or amoral about our dog's levels of food motivation, inherent drive for training, or distractibility.
On the flip side, we don't want to overuse their favorite treats to the point where they become commonplace and less motivating, so only use them when you need them.