Most owners and trainers frequently rely on high value treats when working with their dog. We may use them to get better focus during dog classes, more motivation when working outdoors and they generally help us work through the more challenging situations. But what if high value treats can be so distracting that they actually undermine the training session? What if, behind the need to resort to high value, we’re really compensating for the fact that we’re pushing the dog right through some of his thresholds?
Every dog is different and we certainly can’t compare a Labrador with a Chihuahua when it comes to food drive. I’ve seen labs go through incredible efforts to access a bag of kibble. One of the labs I was working with went so far as taking a door off its hinges! That of course is an extreme example, but in general most labs will be focused and motivated in most situations with just dry kibble as rewards. On the other extreme, for breeds like Chihuahuas or poodles, high value treats are almost a necessity even when working with minimal distractions. The definition of high value treats needs to take into consideration the differences between the dogs. Base value or regular treats are treats that get the dog’s attention and interest in regular, typical situations. For a golden retriever, this may be a liver treat, where for a lab, kibble would apply. High value treats are treats that will trigger more interest from the dog. Depending on the dog, high value could be pieces of cheese, chicken or hot dogs. I have even resorted to the use of tuna fish with a Doberman.
It’s generally recommended to use high value over regular treats in situations where either the level of distractions is higher than normal, or the emotional response may be higher. Many will use high value treats when desensitizing a dog to anxiety generating situations, like dog reactivity or fear around certain types of people. High value treats contribute to keeping the dog focused on his handler and at a manageable level of emotions. Like magnets, they’ll take the dog’s attention off of the scary thing and onto the treat.
Some trainers also use high value treats as a regular treat, mixing different types of foods, like pieces of cheese, hot dogs or liver treats, along with dry kibble. Like a trail mix, the dog never really knows what comes next, keeping his interest engaged. Even the dry kibble will absorb flavors from the other treats and gain a few points on the value scale.
But is using high value treats always a better option over regular dog food? There are cases where using high value treats can actually come in the way of training. I don’t mean to pick on labs, but many will lose they’re ability to think when presented a liver treat. Training sessions are much more efficient when the motivation to eat is a little less intense and the dog’s brain can actually process information. When I was supervising the training of a dog for hypoglycemia detection; anytime we used high value treats, he would run and sit in front of any one of the cups presented. What he was doing was offering the conditioned behavior without applying himself to the task and actually looking for the scent. His focus was on the treat, not on the task. He performed accurately as soon as we went back to using regular kibble.
A recent study on humans (van der Wal & Dillen, 2013) may shed some light behind what happens in the dog’s brain when presented with treats during training sessions. When we’re deeply engaged in an activity, like writing for instance, the world tends to shrink, reducing the relevance of anything else going on. So to get our attention, others may have to talk louder or touch us while we’re focused on our work. When it’s time to perform certain tasks, especially activities that we can’t do on automatic pilot, the brain will focus its resources on processing only the relevant information. In the process, it may go so far as to reducing the sensitivity of our senses. In their study, human subjects were asked to rate sweet or salty foods while engaged in activities of different levels of cognitive loads. The results showed that the food was perceived less sweet or less salty when the participants were engaged in the more difficult or engaging tasks. In other works, the more cognitively loaded the task, the less tasty the food.
With dogs, we can then easily see where high value treats would be almost a necessity when working in situations where the dog’s focus will be on something else. But according to this study, it’s likely that high value treats do not enhance the dog’s motivation. It may have more to do with the dog’s decreased taste perception. Tastier and smellier food is then needed to get the same effect as with lower value treats in normal situations. These results suggest that it may be more beneficial to keep the high value treats for those situations where the dog’s brain may be processing other sources of information and use base value treats in all other times. When high value treats are used on a regular basis, we can undermine our ability to amp up the stimulation to get the dog’s attention.
But having to use high value treats altogether may also be an indicator that the dog has just been pushed through a threshold. Mardi Richmond published a great article on thresholds recently (Richmond, 2013), reminding us of the importance of watching the small signs of building emotions instead of waiting for the full fledged reaction. Increased panting, shutting down or getting distracted, are some of the signs that the dog’s emotional level has started to change. When we use high value treats, we may often get the dog’s attention back on us, but doing so, we might disregard the fact that we’ve already crossed over his threshold and that he’s now operating in an uncomfortable state of mind. In those instances, it may be more efficient to back off a little, allowing the dog’s emotion to settle down and move into the situation at a slower pace. When we look at the differences in food drive between breeds, it seems that we could often attribute it to differences in anxiety levels. It’s sometimes the overall anxiety level that will then determine what the dog is willing to work for.
To use or not to use high value treats… That’s the question! High value treats really come in handy in many training settings. They allow us to keep the dog’s motivation and focus up, thus making quicker progress in our training sessions. As goal oriented creatures, we sometimes need to remember to take a step back. In the process of getting results, we may also either over-stimulate our dog’s senses, or push him through situations that he really isn’t ready to handle. A smart use of high value treats then relies on our ability to evaluate when to use them and when to back off or stop the training session altogether.
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.