How often have you read the following words? “For clicker training you need some tasty treats for your dog. We recommend treats about the size of your pinky fingernail.”
If you Google “clicker training treat pinky nail” you will get page after page of hits with variants of this advice. Except some of them caution that the treats should be no larger than the pinky nail. Some say half the pinky nail. I saw one that said a quarter of the pinky nail.
If you spend any time on the clicker training Yahoo or other discussion groups, you will read conversations about treat size in which people practice one-upmanship regarding how many tiny pieces they can cut out of a single hot dog.
Guess what? This advice negatively impacted my training for years.
Many people have legitimate concerns about their dogs’ weight. Also, I think there is a bit of sensitivity in the clicker training community to criticisms by trainers who use other methods. I think some people want to minimize the whole treat thing.
At your peril.
Here is my story about treats. Summer, my crossover dog, borders on hypervigilance and does not appear to have been selectively bred for an abundance of the “joy with working with humans” genes. She is very environmentally turned on and it is very, very difficult to get her attention outdoors. So naturally, I decided to do agility with her. An offleash sport often pursued outdoors. In fields often bordered by wildlife habitat or in rodeo arenas loaded with animal smells.
For our first year or two, I didn’t have a private teacher, so we just struggled along. I did learn to use high value treats, but I cut them up nice and small as directed. Still, I doled them out fairly generously.
Summer and I got a great agility instructor after about two years. She encouraged the high value treats. I used higher value treats than anyone else in my class, and doled out more of them. Yet after about another year, I was still struggling to get Summer’s attention. My instructor started talking to the class about giving treats generously enough. I listened but I was sure she wasn’t talking to me. As I said, mine were better and I was giving out more.
Then one day in a private lesson, my teacher remarked that the treats I was using were pretty small. I immediately said, “Oh, those are my pocket treats. I have bigger pieces in the food container that I throw at the end of the sequence.” She didn’t say anything else that week. But the next week she took another look and said, “These are just too small. These are ant-sized treats!” I didn’t ask whether she meant they were the size of ants or or appropriate to feed ants. It didn’t matter. Both were embarrassing. I was still a little resistant to her comments since I always passed out several of the small treats. But I did as she suggested and started cutting up much bigger treats.
Around the same time I told her that I knew of something that Summer absolutely loved but I hadn’t ever tried. We had been struggling to get her attention for a year or two, remember. It was baby food. She asked me why I hadn’t used it and I said, and this is true, that I was afraid of “treat inflation” and that I needed to leave something at the top to use later. She kindly suggested I drop that concern.
I wrote about what happened next on a list in March, 2010.
But over the weekend, I tried something new. I took two dogs to our agility lesson. My highest value treats were pieces of commercial meatball, thrown in a food tube at the end of the run, and baby food in the jar for contacts. Even my
“pocket” treats were chunks (not little pieces) of chicken skin, hamburger omelette I made for them (just hamburger cooked with eggs), and hot dog. I know, horrifyingly fatty and gross.
And you know what: my dogs performed with the intensity and enthusiasm of my dreams. Like never before. Boy did I feel stupid. And I probably didn’t end up giving them that much more than usual in terms of calories, since one piece went a long way.
I had been like the proverbial frog in the hot tub, who ends up boiled since he doesn’t notice the rising temperature because it is so gradual. I have been settling for lackluster performance without even knowing it. Last week I would have called my dogs enthusiastic. Now I know better.
In addition to the very high value food treats, we also started reinforcing Summer in agility sequences by letting her play in water sprayed from the garden hose. It turns out she will do almost anything, with speed and excitement, for a chance to play in the hose. And the speed and excitement have “stuck” in her agility performance.
More than two years later, I still tend to use pretty high value stuff for training, but you know what? Summer gets really turned on for training whatever I use. Indoors can be pieces of Natural Balance roll, kibble, goldfish crackers, or even bread. Outdoors, and for longer or more difficult behavior sequences anywhere, it is generally meat, fish, or purees thereof in a squeeze tube. And now even outdoors, my high prey drive, incredibly curious dog keeps an eye on me all the time to see if we might do something interesting together.
This is still a little difficult for me to admit to. It feels like I “bought” my dog’s attention. But either you’re a positive reinforcement trainer or you’re not. And if you are, part of the process is finding out what is reinforcing to your dog and using it. If you aren’t getting great results, you try something different. If I had had a typical border collie or retriever, I might have gotten equal enthusiasm from the start with something lower value. But I had Summer, and I (OK, my teacher did actually) figured out what turned her on.
While preparing this post, I needed some photographs. I cut up some hot dogs into “ninths,” then tiny pieces as in the pinky photo above. The dogs were excited by the smell of hot dogs, which they don’t often get. After the photo session I had a pile of tiny hot dog pieces, so I tried them on Clara. But when I gave her the treats, even two or three at a time, she acted as though she wasn’t sure she had gotten anything. And this is a dog who will happily work for kibble much of the time. The pieces were just too small.
In some circumstances it seems to be very effective to dole out several treats over a time period instead of one big one. But I think even then, there is a minimum effective treat size. I’ve got two dogs (Summer and Zani) who clearly enjoy a nice big piece of good stuff for a difficult job well done.
I’m sure there are plenty of dogs out there who would be delighted with the hot dog treats I cut up today. I’m not prescribing a treat size. I’m suggesting that we all listen to our dogs about what they want. Most importantly, don’t assume that the common recommendations apply to all dogs.
For two years now whenever I’m on a list and someone starts talking about tiny treats, I have a knee jerk reaction, and write a semi rant in response. Now I can just refer them to this post.
Has anybody else experimented not only with different foods but the size of the treats? Do your dogs like rapid fired smaller pieces or a big chunk?
Two astute readers have mentioned in the comments some things that I should have included. Pawsforpraise pointed out that you need to make sure not to make treats too large because of the danger of choking, especially in rapidfire situations. Good point. Marjorie M. also mentions pancreatitis and the dangers of too much fat in the diet. Also a very real concern. You can read the discussion in the Comments below.
Both of these points reminded me that I didn’t say anything about the need for balancing out the rest of the dog’s diet when they are getting some rich training treats. Summer and Zani, for instance, only get treats like the dark meat chicken above in one, maybe two (active, outdoor) training sessions per week. And I adjust their meals accordingly every time we train. I figured that to be self evident, but I shouldn’t have. My own problem with the tiny treats was caused by taking something too literally, so I sure don’t want to omit some practical concerns here and send anyone flying in the opposite direction!
Thanks for reading.
Discussions coming soon: