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Treats for Nothing

Updated: Jan 18, 2023

I love giving treats for nothing. It is hands down my favorite type of training. It’s just so easy. The dog does nothing, and I give snacks. Sometimes the dog even does something bad, and I give snacks anyway. It’s fantastically simple.

Here’s an example:

Pick puppy up = snacks

Place puppy in car = snacks

Puppy sees a person = snacks

Puppy sees a dog = snacks

If you are currently checking my credentials, you are in good company. Many dog guardians are a bit… suspicious… when I suggest this. No, they say. This is not how training works. He has to do something to get a treat.

And depending on what you are training, yes, that is correct. We usually are asking dogs for behaviors before giving them a treat. But this is a bit different.

We aren’t looking through a lens of training behaviors when we use treats for nothing (though we often get useful behaviors as a side effect). Instead, we are looking at creating certain emotional responses. For those of you who enjoy science, treats for nothing can be called Classical Conditioning- it might ring a bell.

Let’s go back to that puppy. We’ll assume that he is a brand new 8-week old fuzzball with a lot to learn about the world. We will also assume that we would like that learning to show him that the world and its inhabitants are safe and fun.

What do you think happens over time when, each time we pick him up, he gets snacks? Remember, we are working on emotional responses here.

If you guessed that he will likely learn that being picked up is wonderful- because snacks are wonderful- you are correct!

What else is he learning in that list? Cars are good. People are good. Dogs are good. Treats for nothing is setting him up to be much less likely to become fearful as he grows, as he will now have a long history of new things predicting good things: snacks.

Now what happens when we use treats for nothing on an adult dog? Maybe a fearful adult dog displaying aggression on leash in the presence of other dogs?

Dog = snacks

Dog = snacks

Dog = snacks

Dog = good

We humans often feel the need to resort to harsh methods of training for these dogs. But what if instead of focusing on behaviors, we focused on those emotional responses? What if we used treats for nothing to mold a new response, one born of excitement and snack anticipation rather than fear?

The answer, of course, is that a whole lot of dogs would be a whole lot happier.

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