Help! My Dog Only Listens When There’s Treats!

“But he only does it when I have treats!”

 “I have to pretend to have a treat or she won’t listen!”

Does this sound like you? Did you find that your dog learned the basics very fast when you used treats as a reward…but then seemed to forget everything when asked to perform without them?

Some may tell you that this is an inherent problem with using rewards in training. However, the issue is more about how food is used than about using rewards in general. Follow these tips and you can get the benefits of reward based training without sacrificing reliability.

  •  Dogs are very perceptive to body cues, intentional or otherwise. When you are working with your dog, do you find yourself reaching for a treat before each cue? Or using a treat to lure your dog into position beyond the first several sessions? When treats are used in this manner, they become part of the cue to perform. The same thing often happens with people bending of kneeling before calling their dog then when they try standing straight, their dog no longer responds to the command. Same with bending over to get the dog to lie down, try standing up and the dog no longer responds. So don’t be predictable about the treats. Sometimes have one in your hand, sometimes leave it in your pocket, on a counter or in a hidden spot to surprise the dog. And avoid using a food lure to get your dog to perform beyond the first several sessions.


  •  Food isn’t the only way to reward a dog – mix it up! Use food, toys, play and “life rewards” so your dog doesn’t become too dependent on food being the only reward you provide. When I worked at a doggy daycare and Jagged was young, I taught him an extremely solid recall and stay using a release to play as the reward. In every day, life my young dogs practice sit-stays every time they are released from a crate or go in or out doors or vehicles. No treats involved, the reward is being released to do something they want (if they don’t hold their position, the door closes). I use chase-me games as a reward for my dogs pretty often too. Anything your dog wants is a potential reward and once you start using that in daily life, your dogs reliability will skyrocket.


  • Be unpredictable. Always giving your dog a treat every time he sits may initially seem to produce reliability quickly…until you ask him to perform without a treat a few times. Consistently rewarding every correct response doesn’t teach your dog to work through stress and to keep trying. If your dog quits when things get even a bit stressful or because he doesn’t see an immediate possibility for reward, it will be very difficult to build reliability. After you have gotten the behavior you want on cue, start being unpredictable with the rewards. Ask for a sit, play with your dog, ask for another sit…then run away (if your dog enjoys playing and chasing). Or sometimes reward after the first sit, sometimes after the second, third or fourth. Remember to also use life rewards – if your dog wants something (say to be let outside) he must first sit and wait to be released to it. When rewards can come from anywhere and be in any form, your dog will work for the chance of a reward instead of the promise of one.


  •  Can your dog sit in a box? By a fox? In a boat? Near a moat? In the car? Will he sit near and far? Getting behavior in dog training is pretty easy, at least when it comes to basics like sit, down and stay. Most people can teach their dog to do these behaviors for a treat in just a few quick sessions in their living room or kitchen. So why are there countless dog training books, classes and professional trainers? Because getting the behavior is just the first step in developing reliability. And most people would agree that reliability is what makes a dog “trained. Having your dog sit for a treat in the kitchen is fairly useless if you can’t get him to perform the behavior when you really need him too. So you need to teach your dog to perform the behavior in a variety of settings, for a variety of rewards (treats, toys, play, affection, praise, release to something he wants, etc). Sometimes he may need to perform the behavior a few times before earning a reward. And sometimes he’ll get a reward on the first try. When you first introduce new scenarios, make it easier for the dog to be successful. High value treats and easy behaviors. Once he’s had a bit of practice, he’ll start to get better and better at generalization and you will see reliability developing faster and faster in new situations.

I’ve used sit as an example here but the tips work with any behavior you want to become reliable. Set your dog up to succeed, watch your body cues, use a variety of rewards instead of just food, be unpredictable and take a hint from Dr. Suess – teach your dog to do it in a box, near a fox, over there or anywhere!

Some places Savvy can sit…

Up Your Dog Training Game with the 300 Peck Method

Adding duration and distance to behaviors such as stay is often where frustration sets in for owners. Your dog can sit or down but he pops right back up. Or he stays when you are right in front of him but not when you walk away. Why does your dog do this? Is he being willful? Stubborn? Testing you? More than likely, he’s just showing you were the holes in your training are. A common mistake in teaching Stay is upping the criteria too much, too quickly. That means you are asking for more from the dog then you have actually trained for. Sometimes that approach works out, often times it does not. But the 300 Peck Method is a quick, easy to use and effective way of building distance/duration with your dog’s behaviors.

300 Peck refers to an experiment in variable reinforcement involving pigeons.  The researcher taught pigeons to peck a bar for a reward.  Slowly extending the number of pecks between rewards, the researcher was able to train her pigeons to reliably peck the bar 300 times before they were rewarded. This seems like an incredible amount when you consider it would not be unlike your dog being trained to sit 300 times in a row before any reward was given.  Yet we expect “300 Peck” type behaviors from our dogs regularly, often without training to that level of reliability.

To use 300 Peck to teach your dog to Sit-Stay, begin with your dog in front or beside you and some good treats. have your dog sit and count to one. If your dog remains sitting, mark the behavior using a word such as “yes” or a clicker and give a treat. If your dog moves, try again. Once you have been able to reward for a count of one, count to two the next time.  If your dog stays, mark and reward then try for a count of three.  If your dog does not stay go back and start over with a count of one.  Basically you are upping the criteria by one (in this case a count of one or about one second) until your dog doesn’t perform the behavior.  At the point your dog doesn’t perform the behavior or performs the behavior incorrectly such as shifting in place, you will go back to the beginning and start over.  This takes the guesswork out of building duration on the stays by giving the trainer a easy to remember, consistent way to increase the difficulty of an exercise.

300 Peck can also be used to build the distance and work on distractions. When increasing difficulty work on only one area at a time. So work on duration, distance or distractions. While introducing a new element in one area, make the other areas easier. So when increasing distance, decrease duration and distractions. Upping the criteria of two or three aspects of difficulty at the same time may confuse your dog and cause setbacks in training.

To increase the distance for your sit stay, start with one step away. If the dog hold their position, mark and reward. Then trytwo steps away, then three and so on until the dog is no longer able to remain in position for the full count. Then go back to one step away. To increase the distractions, take one of two approaches. If your dog is very distracted by a ball, you can begin by having a ball in your pocket. Reward you dog for staying while you reach into your pocket, then while you take the ball out of your pocket, then when you present them with the ball, then when you move the ball around until your dog tells you the distraction is too great. At that point, you go back to rewarding for beginning to take the ball out of your pocket. Or you can work on distractions using distance. When doing this, you will start with your dog far enough away from the distraction that they are able to perform, gradually working your way closer and closer. Can your dog sit stay while someone bounces a ball 20′ away? If yes, mark and reward. 19′? 18′? When the answer becomes no, go back to 20′ away and start over. keep in mind that when using distractions that are safe for your dog to have access to, you can use the distraction as a reward too instead of a treat for some reps. Mixing up the rewards helps develop better reliability over time than always using food.

Once you understand the 300 Peck Method it can be used on just about any behavior where you want to build reliability by increasing duration, distance and distractions. It allows you to have an ongoing conversation with your dog during training, getting constant feedback from them about what their level of understanding truly is.


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