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Ask an Expert – How to Wean Off Treats

By: Jennifer Messer

Last Updated:

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Ask Jennifer Messer

Q: My new puppy only listens to me if I have a handful of treats. How do I wean her off treats so she’ll obey me regardless of what I have to offer? —Tricked for Treats in Toronto

A:SIMPLE: THINK VEGAS INSTEAD OF VENDING MACHINE The reason that your puppy only listens to you when you have a handful of treats is because she has learned that obedience only gets her what she wants if she sees the goods up front. Not surprising that she ignores you when you are empty handed; would you put coins in an empty vending machine? Nuh-uh.

Your vending machine strategy was perfect for teaching her the meaning of your requests. But now she needs motivation to comply regardless of whether she sees any rewards up front. Time to turn your puppy into an obedience junkie—vegas style.

Slot machines are addictive because putting coin after coin in and NOT getting an immediate reward is a predictive of an eventual jackpot. Some jackpots are small, others huge—but you just never know what you will win, or when. The excitement and surprise are addictive, and the reward schedule builds great endurance for even quite long periods of no payoff. While gambling can be a problem addiction for humans, dogs never lose the roof over their head for taking a shot at obedience in the hopes of scoring some favourite food or fun. So unleash your puppy’s inner vegas—the irresistible itch to see what surprises good obedience brings—with these six simple rules:

1.Make an inventory of your puppy’s wish list: attention, food, affection, playtime, intellectual stimulation, exercise, and whatever other “legal” goodies turn her crank. Be aware of what her absolute favourites are on this list: the better performances will get the better rewards.

2.Reserve some of the food and game items for use ONLY after good behaviour—don’t give away these golden ones for free!

3.Give NO clues of what goodies are in store until AFTER she listens to you. No cookies in hand when you ask her to sit, no tug toy in pocket when you call her to come, no promise of “walkies” while you ask her to lay off the cat.

4.When she does a so-so job, acknowledge the effort with mild praise.

5.When she does a pretty good job, praise her well and occasionally give her something of mid-range value from her wish list.

6.When she does a great job, surprise her with a jackpot of one or more of the things on her wish list, saving the best stuff for only the very best performances.

Remember, when teaching your dog something new, you need to start out as a vending machine so that she learns what the right response is to your request: you can lure her to comply with cookies, and should reward her every time she gets it right. Then, once the behaviour is pretty reliable, STOP showing her the goods upfront, and only reward her for compliance sometimes, saving the greatest rewards for her very best performances. If you play your cards right she will quickly catch on that any obedience request is a chance at the jackpot, and you will both have tonnes of fun playing the obedience game, vegas style.

Looking for more helpful behavioural and training tips? Check out these great reads! 

Last Updated:

By: Jennifer Messer
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