K9 Coach – The 5 W’s of Treat Training


How wonderful! The debate about using treats for training is turning from “should we” to “how to”.  The who, what, when, why and where of treat training is now the new norm.

Who?  Most educated dog trainers of this decade are using treats and rewards as indicators of correct behavior.  Behaviorists also utilize food in their protocols, to help change the mind of the dogs rather than to use force to push them into submission.  When we know better, we do better.

What?  A treat needs to be something that your dog will work for.  It can be his daily kibble or an extra special bonus.  Keep in mind that dogs on a special diet or with allergy restrictions are now in luck as many pet specialty shops, like Global Pet Foods, carry a wide assortment of food and treats that will fit the bill. Shopping for an assortment can be fun.  They can be put into a large bowl, mixed up, and dolled out like “puppy trail mix”.  This will keep your pup interested in the training game.

When?  We know that reward vs. no reward is the way to go, not only with canines but also with their people.  Treats can be used to teach a skill, and then weaned off once the dog is proficient and has learned the lesson.  There are many articles written on random reinforcement and proper timing.  It is nice to know that the ‘when’ of treat training is becoming common knowledge to dog trainers, and to the informed public.  Making sure you use a marker word, such as “yes” to let your dog know she is on the right track…followed by a treat reward immediately following, is the key to success.

Why?  Great question.  Why do we use food to train our dogs, and to modify their behavior?  Because it is clear and concise information. The dogs will work for the food initially and will continue to comply with what they are asked to do if the treats are weaned off properly.  It’s also a lot of fun for dog lovers to use treats, praise and toys to motivate and teach their canine buddies.

That brings us to the last W.

Where?  No, this doesn’t mean outdoors vs. indoors or Toronto vs. Vancouver.  The ‘where’ of treat training is where the dog will receive his reward.  Where will the treat come from, and where will the dog be? By rewarding them in the position you have asked for, it will help to enforce the connection.  If you have asked your pup to lie down, then best to dole out something tasty and fun while he is lying down.

Once we can see that our dog understands the word down, we graduate to the down/stay.  We ask our dog to lie down and we leave him to stay and all is well.  Upon our return, it is not uncommon for the dog to get up as you approach.  Many people, delighted that their dog was at least partially in position, and not romping around the room, treat the dog.  By treating your dog in the position of sit, you create confusion.  You may get a dog that thinks he is being rewarded for sitting up when you come back.  Clarity is one of the top concepts in teaching.  That, along with consistency and reward, will serve you well when teaching your dog.

Another example is using a treat in your left hand when teaching your dog to walk beside you. It is best initially to pick one side to work on. This will improve your dog’s ability to understand what you are asking from him. Start with a treat in your left hand in full view.  This will help him to focus and to indicate that he should be on your left.  Treat along the way as he walks on the left.

You can quickly start to ask for more steps from your dog, while still having his focus.  As you progress, you can remove the treat from the sight of your pup, in a closed hand. Continue to randomly reward him for being in correct position. The next step is the treat in a pocket, only coming out for a job well done.  Once that is mastered, you can periodically reward from your left hand, then wean down to none at all.  While this may take some time, it will provide a consistent plan to reach your goal.

Knowing and understanding the 5 W’s will help you to remain consistent during your training sessions.



is the Director of Who’s Walking Who Dog Training Centres in Toronto and Ajax, Ontario.  She has been featured on many radio and television programs and penned  a monthly column in Dogs in Canada Magazine for nine years.  Gillian is also a guest lecturer at the University of Toronto, using dogs to shed light on learning theory to psychology students.  She shares her home with two dogs, and is involved in dog sports and canine performance teams.