How To Get the Most Value Out of Your Dog Training Treats

Written by: 

By Christie Catan, CPDT-KA, Co-Founder of Tails of Connection

Author Christie Catan is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, Knowledge Assessed. She received free treats from ButcherBox For Pets in the process of writing this sponsored blog post.


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It’s no secret that one of the best ways to build behavior is to use really strong reinforcers - like treats your dog really loves. But once you’ve found some of those preferred morsels, did you know that there are some things that you can do to really maximize the effectiveness of those treats when you use them to train your dog?!

Before we dive into those tips, let’s quickly review some relevant science. 

The Science Behind Using Treats to Train Your Dog

The likelihood of a behavior occurring is related to the consequences that behavior has produced in the past. This is called the Law of Effect. Put more simply, behavior is a function of its consequences. These consequences provide really important information to an individual about the usefulness of a behavior in a given context. Behaviors that work (from your dog’s perspective) get repeated. Those that don’t are eliminated or suppressed. This is a natural part of life on this planet – and a useful one! Our dogs (and us) get to modify our behavior “in real time” based on feedback. Without this learning mechanism, we’d have a really hard time here. 

When the consequences that follow a behavior strengthen that behavior, the process of reinforcement has occurred. Those consequences that strengthen behavior are called reinforcers

When you’re training with treats, generally speaking, the goal is for those treats to function as reinforcers for behavior you want to see more of. When you give a treat in training, ideally you have reinforced (strengthened) the behavior that the treat followed. 

So you’ve got your yummy treats and are ready to train your dog. How can you maximize the  effectiveness of those treats as reinforcers?! 

Here are some things to think about:

1)  Deliver Dog Training Treats Contingently Following the Behavior You’re Trying to Strengthen.

When talking about operant behavior (behavior that can be influenced by consequences), contingency refers to the “degree of correlation between a behavior and its consequence.”1 Generally speaking, the tighter the correlation between a behavior and its consequence, the faster the rate of learning. 

What matters here is consistency. For example, if you were trying to learn how to turn on cold water at the sink, you’d learn very quickly to turn the right handle (behavior) if cold water came out of the faucet (reinforcer) every time you did that. If you turned the right handle and sometimes cold water came out and other times hot water or no water came out, learning would almost certainly take longer.

If you’re training with treats, delivering a treat consistently anytime the behavior occurs helps your dog learn the contingency that’s in play (under Z conditions, if you do X behavior, then Y consequence occurs).

For example, if you’re trying to teach your dog to come when called and using treats to do this, when you say “come” and your dog shows up in front of you, you should give them a treat 100% of the time (or deliver some other reinforcer that you know “works” in this context). 

2) Deliver the Treat Immediately Following the Desired Behavior.

This is called contiguity. In general, the shorter delay between when your dog performs the behavior and when your treat is delivered, the faster learning will occur.

For example, imagine you are teaching your dog “drop it.” Your dog gets a hold of a piece of trash in the yard, and you say “drop it.” You don’t have treats on you so you walk towards your house, go inside, open the fridge, get a piece of cheese, and then give it to your dog, who has followed you inside. That cheese is now pretty far removed from the drop behavior you originally wanted to reinforce. In this context, the cheese may end up reinforcing following you inside or standing beside you when you open the fridge more than dropping items when cued. 

A note of nuance here: when your dog actually gets to eat the treat can be delayed a bit when we use a marker and have a trained reinforcement procedure, which we’ll talk a bit about next, since the reinforcing event still starts (signaled by the marker) immediately after the behavior occurs. 

3) Create a Reinforcing Event That Adds Other Reinforcers to the Mix Beyond the Dog Training Treat Itself.

Rather than just handing your dog a treat, are there elements you can add to your delivery that might enhance your “reinforcement package”?

For example, what happens if you toss the treat? Now in addition to eating a treat, your dog gets to chase one! Or maybe you scatter a few on the ground. Now instead of just grabbing a treat out of your hand, they get to sniff and scavenge. Or perhaps you hold a treat out in your hand and run away, so they get to playfully chase you to “catch” the treat. Or maybe you do hand them the treat but also give them some butt scratches. 

These examples all add extra potential reinforcers to the “suite” of things that happen as a consequence of your dog performing the behavior. If you include the right things, you may be working with a much stronger reinforcer than the treat alone. 

To figure out what to add to the mix, think about what your dog seems to enjoy doing. On walks, do you find them tracking wildlife scents? Do you find them wanting to chase critters in your yard? Are they a dog who just can’t get enough butt scratches? Observing what they seek out can help you determine where to start in creating your own reinforcement bundle. 

Tip: Think about context! If your dog seems to want to chase critters on walks and seeks affection from people on the couch, adding an element of chase to your reinforcement procedure on walks may play a lot better than adding butt scratches … but it depends on the individual dog!

When I’m delivering a lot of treats throughout the day, I may reserve a little bit of a dog’s dry food to use for treats to avoid overfeeding. Since their food is generally available non-contingently (which is great - we don’t want our dogs having to earn their basic needs), paying attention to some of the tips above can help up the overall value of your reinforcer. For example, if your dog is eating ButcherBox for Pet’s Premium Nutrition Dog Food and you want to use some to reinforce check-in’s on walks, consider tossing the food instead of simply handing it to them!

While our goal is for our reinforcers to be as strong and effective as possible, the only way to know if something is reinforcing is to watch what happens to future behavior under similar conditions. For example, if you start petting your dog and giving them a treat when they come when you call them and all of the sudden they start coming more slowly than they used to, those scratches may not actually be functioning as reinforcers in that context. (A lot of dogs enjoy scratches in some contexts and not others, so be careful with this one.) 

4) Add an Element of Surprise!

We generally don’t want to surprise our dogs with whether or not they get a treat after doing the behavior (if treats are the reinforcer you’re using). We actually want predictability in the “if X behavior, then Y outcome” contingency when building, strengthening, and maintaining most behaviors. 

Decades worth of research by the behavior science community suggests that reinforcing every single occurrence of a behavior is the best way to teach a new behavior or strengthen/maintain an existing one.* So we generally don’t want whether or not the behavior will be reinforced to be a mystery. (There are some, but not many, behaviors that need to persist under extinction conditions, and those are best maintained on an intermittent schedule … but alas, that is a story for another time.)

We can still get the “motivation boost” that comes from novelty and surprise by varying the types of treats we use.

You can rotate the treats you use by day or week or you can even have a number of different treats in your bag that you pull from, which is often what I do. 

When finding out that behaviors are best maintained when reinforced after every occurrence, people understandably often ask, “Will I have to give my dog treats forever?!” The answer is it depends on what reinforcer you want to ultimately maintain that behavior. If you can get the behavior to contact naturally occurring reinforcers, you can absolutely fade the treats. A good example of this is loose leash walks under “average” conditions. It’s often taught with treats, but as the dog walks near you, those behaviors are also being reinforced by naturally occurring reinforcers like forward movement, smells, etc. Those naturally occurring reinforcers can eventually take over reinforcing walking near you. In other cases, you may decide to use treats to maintain the behavior forever (recall is often a good example of this). 

A note of nuance regarding adding a surprise element: As with anything, it’s best to observe what happens to behavior over time. Your dog may love both chicken and beef, but if they were expecting beef and got chicken, it may be a “bummer.” This is not super likely to happen if you’re using all preferred treats (they kind of feel like they’re in a similar bucket of items), but it’s worth mentioning. 

Have Fun Training Your Dog with Treats

Want to know one of the potential “side effects” of training using positive reinforcement (which is ideally what’s occurring when training with treats)? Something called discretionary effort! It’s where the individual puts forth more effort than is actually required to access the reinforcer. It tends to look like something we would call enthusiasm! 

A winning combo:

  • Add fun elements to your reinforcement package to turn it into an event – this is a great way to up the value of your existing food and treats!
  • Good “mechanics” - deliver contingently and continuously!
  • Variety! Novelty helps prevent oversatiation of any one treat. Sometimes you can achieve this simply by rotating what you’re using. 

Learning with dogs is a gift, and we hope you enjoy the connection that comes from your training time together.

Happy training! 


1 Chance, P. (2005). Learning & Behavior. (5th Edition, 159-160). Wadsworth Publishing.
2 Chance, P. (2005). Learning & Behavior. (5th Edition, 160). Wadsworth Publishing.


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