Positive reinforcement dog training is everywhere. In fact, you will have a hard time finding a dog training program that isn’t pure positive training and using treats.

Treats do have their place in training your dog. And if your dog is food motivated, then you can see quick results using treats.

But, and that’s a big BUT, treats won’t train your dog around major distractions. Say another dog that wants to play, a squirrel running through the yard, or the mailman ringing the doorbell.

Should I train my dog using treats?

Don’t Make These Dog Training Mistakes

After adopting our pup, Ginger, I searched for local training programs. The only options were treat-based training programs. I searched for any dog training recommendations in my area and took a chance with a local positive reinforcement basic obedience dog training class.

I can express how disappointed I was with this training class after the first day! We fed Ginger an entire baggy full of treats during a 45-minute class. Seriously, I’m surprised she didn’t have a belly ache after that!

My husband and I have been dog owners together for over 25 years… have trained several dogs using training methods WITHOUT treats. But I really wanted a structured program to attend but I couldn’t find a program that didn’t use treats.

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So, what did I learn in 6 weeks and $125 later? Feed my dog treats (an entire baggy full every class) and my dog will SIT, DOWN and COME to me.

But only when I have a high-valued treat in my hand. Really? I could have done this at home in 3 days watching YouTube videos!

I found an online dog training program that I really like, called Spirit Dog Training. While they do use treats for some training, I like their approach for changing behaviors.

Is Treat Training Bad?

Treats can be good for training your dog, but all in moderation. With a Positive Reinforcement Dog Training program will be teaching your dog basic commands using treats to lure the behavior.

There is no correction in Positive Reinforcement Dog Training (aka treat training). If the dog does not perform the command, you continue to offer the treat or get a higher-value treat. Something tasty and more motivating.

But what happens when you and your dog walking through a busy park. There are a lot of people walking their dogs, kids playing frisbee, bicyclists riding by, squirrels running from tree to tree … and you have trained your dog how to sit and walk next to you with treats and pure positive training. Does your dog choose a treat or that squirrel that just ran by you?

If he chooses the squirrel, what’s the worse that happens? He gets to have the fun of the chase and then what? You give him a treat for coming back to you? PLEASE NO!!!!

This would be like your teenage daughter sneaking out of the house at night, coming home after you called her, then offering her a cupcake because you are so happy she’s home safe. Really?

Treat training is great when there are NO distractions around you.

The fact is, that treat, no matter how high-value it is, will lose the battle of squirrel vs. treat. Another dog vs. treat, the other dog is the winner. The UPS man vs. treat, the UPS man wins. You get the idea, right?

When Should I Use Treats When Training My Dog?

There is a place for treats when training your dog. Treats are especially great for training a puppy.

Here are 4 great opportunities to use treats in training:

  1. Potty training a puppy or dog can be easy when using treats. Take him outside, and immediately after he finishes peeing or pooping, give him a treat and say “good boy”.
    Repeat this every time he goes potty outside. Don’t be shy about getting excited about your puppy going potty outside. It should take less than a week depending on the age of your puppy. Puppies bladders aren’t mature enough to hold it very long, so take him outside often.
  2. Treats are a great way to train young puppies (6 months and younger) basic commands. You can use treats to teach him to SIT, DOWN, COME, and do fun tricks such as PAW.
    Agility and tricks are great opportunities to use treats. These are fun activities for the dog and treats are a fun way to lure him to do what you are asking him to do.
  3. Crate training your dog with treats can motivate him and teach him a crate is a good place. Simply toss a few treats into the crate and let your dog go into the crate on his own. Do not push or force him into his crate. Learn more about crate training your dog.
  4. Occasional treats are great to reinforce any training commands, but should not be used as the only tool.

If Treats Won’t Work With My Dog Around Distractions, What Can I Do?

I think a lot of people that get a dog have an idea of how they want that dog to behave. TV shows and movies put this picture-perfect dog in our head, that runs around off-leash, comes when called, and never gets into mischief!

But the fact is those TV dogs have been trained by trainers for hundreds of hours to get that awesome behavior. Dogs aren’t born to understand people, it’s our job to train the dog to understand. So please don’t expect to adopt a dog, walk through your front door and be perfect.

We as dog parents have the responsibility to train our dogs to understand right from wrong, what SIT, DOWN and COME mean.

Your words, praise, and affection, a simple collar and leash can go a long way in training your dog. In fact, you can train your dog at home in as little as 3 minutes a day.

Finding the right training program for you and your dog is key. Click here to learn How to Find the Perfect Dog Trainer and more about the different types of dog trainers. In my opinion, finding a balanced dog trainer is your best solution.

How To Train Your Dog Without Treats

The biggest difference I found with Balanced Dog Training is the lack of constant treats and the use of corrections. Not obeying your commands results in consequences.
A correction is not yelling or beating your dog. A correction can be a jerk of the leash or a firm voice saying “no”.

The results of a balanced dog training program will be:

  • Your dog will listen to you regardless of the distraction
  • You don’t need to carry treats around with you 24/7 for the life of your dog
  • Your dog will lead a happy life knowing what you expect of him

I believe that positive/treat training has become today’s popular method only because people are afraid to discipline their dogs! And somehow correcting your dog has been twisted into animal cruelty.

Please ask yourself, is it crueler to:

A) Never discipline your dog and allow him to misbehave and do as he pleases whenever he wants, pull on the leash whenever he sees a dog, bark at strangers, etc.

OR

B) Train your dog and correct your dog’s bad behavior one time with a good correction so he learns right from wrong the first time?

Choosing the right training method is very important to you and your dog. You as the owner need to be comfortable with your choice, but keep in mind what you expect from your dog.

Using treats can be fun for you and your dog, but remember that we all need discipline in our lives to be balanced.

P.S. Leave a comment below, I would love to hear all about how you use treats with your dog!

P.S.S. Head over to read 5 Quick Ways to Train Your Dog in 3 Minutes a Day.

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About the Author

Debi McKee is a mom of three kids, three dogs and the creator of Rescue Dogs 101... where she guides you in your journey of adopting and raising a rescue dog every step of the way. She also volunteers for a local dog rescue and Humane Society.

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  1. This is my mode of training but my Pittie is a hard alpha type and even if given a tug or a jerk he simply holds his ground or pulls extra hard. If we have a standoff, he will simply stare at me, or not look at me at all and try to walk another way, never to me. He knows basic commands and we’ve been working for weeks and is completely unmotivated by food, he’s just headstrong, and I’m a small woman lol, does that mean the discipline needs to be harder??? He’s 4 and I’m his last shot before euthanasia…

  2. I’m so glad I came across this article, as it’s made me realise we’re on the right track with my dog. I’ve been using treats to train my puppy which worked for a while. But once she turned 1year old, she stopped caring about treats and now comes whenever she wants and sits when she feels like it. She’s become a total brat.

    So we found this behaviourist, and he never uses treats. He uses affection and praise as positive reinforcement and uses correction to discipline. And my initial thoughts were that this feels cruel. But I have to say, these methods are actually working. And like you said in your article, it’s just a stern ‘no’ or a small tug on the collar – nothing cruel.

  3. I agree. I have a 6 month old pit mix puppy. With treat training, she comes, gets the treat, then goes right back to chasing crickets or jumping toward that squirrel. I’ve brought everything in my pouch with me on walks. Kibble, high value treats, the deli section of a supermarket! Toys! More toys! It’s getting to be a bit ridiculous. The world around her is far more interesting right now. And I’m starting to fear I won’t be able to control her without food.

    I watched these treat training videos, and these trainers using docile dogs, and it started to depress me. Because my dog didn’t act the way their dog did, that must mean I’m a failure.

  4. As the parent of a large rescue dog (adopted around 4 months old last June), and one who attended a positive reinforcement basic manners class, I have found that training is not enough when my dog is frightened (strangers approaching or talking to us). I have considered a prong collar and some new methodology to keep us all safe on our walks, and this article was helpful in knowing that, if this is what I need to do – and I do it correctly – I’m not being a bad dog owner.

  5. I agree that both reward and consequence are important. But even more important is clear communication when training. I have two dogs that can be walked down the street off leash. I don’t have to tell them to “heel” because they know when we walk down the street they walk with me. And they can both be off leash while I garden in my front yard. They will not leave the property and they don’t chase squirrels. And again I don’t have to tell them because they have learned this is what is expected of them. I rarely see well behaved dogs anymore. I’ve been training dogs for 40 years, and it’s very sad to see most dogs pull on the leash and ignore their owners.

  6. The problem with aggressive correcting called as discipline is that it’s an outside-in training. It doesn’t actually train your dog to keep that behaviour when the owner isn’t around. When you use force or make things uncomfortable for the dog as a form of punishment, it often makes the dog do these bad behaviours in secret. The point of giving treats is to install good habits and get the dog to use their brains and make their own good decisions. I recommend watching Zak George’s youtube tutorials on positive training and specifically looking at how he weans off the treats and uses affection and praise as rewards. Or maybe just getting his book. that really helped me go through a step by step process of dog training in a non forceful way. I didn’t wanna have to yell at my dog or make myself look like a fool for the dog to listen to me. I also didn’t want my dog to behave nicely only when I’m around and does whatever he actually pleases whenever he’s alone. You have treats to introduce a new command, then you do it every now and then, then super randomly and eventually every other day and eventually every other week to nothing at all.

    1. I like Zak George as well. But I just watch a video of him training a dog, and the dog nearly flew out of his hands to chase a squirrel.

  7. Thanks for this post, I couldn’t agree more! I’ve had many breeds of dogs throughout my life, mostly schnauzers which were pretty easy going and just getting a little bass in my voice once or twice was enough. But I recently got two Welsh Terriers. They are beautiful and the sweetest most affectionate dogs I’ve ever owned, however, they are the most stubborn and independent dogs I’ve owned as well. I’m sure with treats they would learn to do any trick after two or three tries, but how do you translate that to not tearing apart a trashcan or splitting so fast out the door they are literally a blur to antagonize the huge pit bull next door? Some things just aren’t acceptable, and that needs to be made clear (ESPECIALLY with terriers I am learning lol)

  8. Couldn’t agree more with your article. I’ve taken in a 3 year old Treeing Walker Coon Hound mix. 60+ lbs of muscle and prey drive. German Shepherds were a snap compared to this guy, but he’s awesome all the same! I could slap a steak in front of him but if he see’s a squirrel, he’s gonna pass on the steak. Seems reckless pumping a dog with boatloads of treats, even if they are high value. Not good for their diet. Certainly no pro, but from what I’ve learned thus far, if your dog doesn’t respect and love you back, all the treats in the world aren’t going to change that. Your nothing more than a vending machine. I’m learning you have to commit the time to the dog so that your pooch wants to make you happy by complying with your commands. Also learning you have to mix work with play and to use your voice / tone in a positive way to let your dog know he’s doing well. Something I personally need to work on as well as being more observant and focusing more on my timing too.

    1. Thank you everyone for the comments and did this article! I just got a baby German Shepherd who is quite the mischievous alpha and I find myself bombarded with opinions on only using positivity but it almost discounts their intellect. After the first day he figured out he would focus until my treats ran out, then I’m at his mercy making daily restock runs to petco, something not good for his health. I’m learning the love also comes in the form of discipline, they need restraint for their own safety. Titan would chew up a basketball if he could get it down so I also realized encouraging only treats builds extreme prey/scent drive that actually makes focus hard. He only wants to smell my hand for treats or sniff them out when I run out instead of continuing to listen. He knows I’m a good time, so I’m working on balancing both without getting frustrated.

  9. Like anything, there needs to be a balance. But dogs do need to respect the owner otherwise they will run riot. I was reprimanded at a shelter for not using treat training and felt so guilty that my own dogs got out of control. It’s the same people who think they can save every dog or that dogs aren’t pack animals. They are. We are. We follow strong leaders. Wild animals (and dogs) use a raised voice and sometimes light force to correct each other. Dogs aren’t easy and that’s why so many intelligent breeds like Pits and GSDs end up in shelters. Like parenting, you have to be willing to be a parent not a friend sometimes.

  10. Absolutely 100% spot on! I personally like to ask these people, if your child is misbehaving or worse, about to do something dangerous, do you just ignore it? Of course you don’t! So why in the world do you think that’s the right course of action in training a dog? Makes no sense whatsoever and drives me nuts. I’ve had to fix so many of these dogs over the years, it really does the dog and owner such a disservice to train this way in my opinion.

  11. This article is correct in every way. A dog who is trained with just treats is not a well trained dog. There has to be a balance to the training.
    Something the kids of today need in their lives too.

  12. JCM’s Dog Training has been around for many years. They specialize in “off leash” training, and have never used treats in their basic and advanced Obedience courses. They do, however, use treats to motivate dogs they train for movies, and trick training. Their philosophy is to work with dogs using their “natural instincts.” The way dogs learn from and interact with other dogs.

  13. This is interesting, I found this because today my 5 year old lab ran off & wasn’t found for an hour. He’s been treat trained, started 4 years ago when he ran off to raid bins. Take high value treats out, like chicken I was advised. He gets better treats than I do but today I finally realised that no matter where or for how long he runs away for, he knows he’ll continue getting this now very mediocre high reward, just for coming back.
    A bag or rotten food is far more appealing for him until he wants a treat.
    I know when he’s been up to no good with the dog Walker, his poop is loose from all the bribery treats.
    To stop him rearing up on lead barking at something or someone he doesn’t like….distract him with treats. He now expects a treat for any & every behaviours or move he makes. Walking him is now stressful because if he’s not smacking my pocket, he’s running off.
    I love him, he’s my family but treat training has finally failed.

    1. So sorry to hear you are struggling with your dogs behavior! I recommend taking a step away from the treats and really focus on going back to basics. Please read The Prong Collar, the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly , it will help you with the walking problems. We use treats strictly for rewarding good learned behavior, it’s also important to note the timing of treats is critical. Most trainers won’t stress this enough. Treating at the wrong moment in time, will be rewarding the bad behavior and not the good behavior.

  14. Way to go!!!! Too many people have horrible misbehaved pets that dont listen even when the owner has a treat cause its “cruel” to correct a dog it blows my mind how many dogs are no longer trained…

  15. Thanks for this article. Positive only training seems to have completely taken over. You are brave to have an opinion that is not in alignment with the positive only trainer’s agenda. As soon as anyone doesn’t fully agree with them they attack, bully and shame to silence the truth. Common sense in dog training doesn’t exist anymore.

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