What’s in Lisa’s treat pouch?, or How To Make Your Own Puppy Crack

Ever wonder why dogs like Lisa’s treats so much? Here’s the secret to how her treats get and keep a dog’s attention both in class and home.


Ask Professor Boo is our recurring, positive reinforcement dog training and behavior question and answer column. If you have a question that you would like to ask Professor Boo, please feel free to contact him.

Q: Just what do you have in your treat pouch? Whenever we’re in class or you’re over for a private our dogs always like your treats better than our own.
A: I get asked this a lot and for whatever reason folks never believe that the secret behind Puppy Crack – as my treats have come to be known – is actually no real secret at all.

Imagine that you’re a kid again, it’s Halloween, and you’ve just come back with a mighty haul of candy. You tear off your costume, run into the living room to dump your pillow case into the middle of the floor, and find yourself looking down into a huge pile of nothing but Smarties.

Alternatively, you dump out your pillow case and see a giant pile of nothing but Lindt truffles.

Or apples.

Or little boxes of raisins.

Even if you really love Smarties, Lindt truffles, apples, or raisins, there’s just something that’s going to be disappointing about that Halloween haul.

For me, the best hauls were always the ones with lots of stuff mixed in the pile: high-end things like truffles right next to the pure comfort food yumminess of Smarties.

What’s true for kids on Halloween is just as true for dogs when training.

There are some guidelines that I follow for what makes up a perfect potpourri of puppy-crack for my treat pouch:

  1. The primary ingredient of any treat that I use has to be the actual thing. If it’s beef jerky the primary ingredient should be real beef, if it’s chicken it should be chicken, etc. In other words, read the ingredients and the first one should be some kind of meat.
  2. There should be a selection of treats that are stinky and the stinkier the better: remember that for dogs and people alike the majority of tasting is actually done with our noses, so the stinky treats will make all the others taste better.
  3. There’s a fairly even mixture of high-, mid-, and low-end snacks.
  4. The treats are only the ones that I know my dogs absolutely love. If the treats are only “meh” to the dogs then they won’t receive a reward commensurate with what I’ve asked them to do.
  5. Not every kind of treat that I have in the cupboard goes into the treat pouch at the same time. That allows me to change up what’s on the menu each time I refill, which keeps things interesting to the dog and makes them look forward to whenever I put my hand in the pouch.
  6. I always mix an amount of kibble into the pouch, simply because the ultimate goal is to eventually get the dogs to feel as if their kibble is a treat in and of itself.

And there you go: the secret of Puppy Crack.

Now that you know how I do it, there are a couple bits of additional advice:

  • Don’t cut up too many treats in advance – only keep enough cut on-hand to be able to fill and refill your treat pouch once. Treats go stale and they become less and less yummy to the dogs the staler they get.
  • Most treats seem to make dogs thirsty so please remember to take some water along for your dogs when you’re out and about training.
  • Keep in mind that at home you can probably train with your dog’s kibble, but when you increase the distractions we typically need to increase the power of the reinforcer – at least in the beginning.  Ultimately the goal is to only need food reinforcement in the learning stages or when something new occurs, because eventually your praise will be as powerful as that puppy-crack!  (How to properly sequence things will be addressed in its own Ask Professor Boo.)

If you’re interested in the specific brands of treats that I use, they’re available over in the Boo-tique.

Things Your Dog Will Love: Infini-Tug Dog Toy

If your house is anything like ours you’ve probably got dog toys everywhere on the floor in every room. Dogs love toys so much that they’ll make anything into a toy given enough time, boredom, and lack of supervision.

Puppy Pax’e making toys out of everything!
Toys are also one of the most powerful tools to have in our positive reinforcement bag of tricks and there’s always been one that I keep hidden away – only pulled out on super-special occasions – whose value at the moment I take it out is almost as good as a bag of hot dogs.
Teaching self-control with a rousing game of tug!
When I need to go nuclear with dogs to distract them, direct them, reward them or (my favorite) teach them self control, I push the button with the Infini-Tug Dog Toy

The Infini-Tug Dog Toy is deceptively simple in its design, which is essentially a three-foot length of braided fleece wound through a ball at the end.

I started using the Infini-Tug Dog Toy at a shelter with a dog named Wesley who had some resource guarding issues.

I know it sounds crazy to play tug with a resource guarder, but we only play according to the rules and only began once he had a pretty good drop-it command.

The magic of this game was that he didn’t have to guard it:  he knew that he could drop-it when asked and he’d get it back again.  It has done a great job in helping me reinforce simple commands for him and a great job at teaching him that many things just don’t have to be guarded.  (Stay tuned for more on crazy Wesley in future posts.)

When puppy Pinball came to live with us, I was in the middle of writing A Dog Named Boo and had to devise a game that he could play while I typed.  Tucking the tennis tug securely under my foot or thigh – when sitting – I could work as he tugged away.

I can’t tell you why you would want a Infini-Tug Dog Toy, but I will tell you what I use it for:
  • With Wesley at the shelter,  because he got the Infini-Tug Dog Toy for good behaviors I was able to begin whittling away at some pretty big issues in return.
  • If Pinball is in one of his “I’m young and have a lot of energy so why not eat the pillows?!” moods, I can redirect this level of energy to the Infini-Tug Dog Toy  which wears him out and saves my pillows.
  • Finally, if the dogs have been really, really good I’ll give them the Infini-Tug Dog Toy for a couple of minutes just for fun.

The Infini-Tug Dog Toy is a great dog toy that’s cheap, pretty durable for a tug toy (remember to put it away when done), and I think your dog would get a blast out of it.  Mine certainly do.

Remember:  this is a supervised toy.  Do not leave it with them alone because they will tear it apart (after all that’s what tug is all about)! Always put the toy away when the game is over.

Things Your Dog Will Love: Twist ‘n Treat

The Twist ‘n Treat is a great positive reinforcement tool to control speed eating in dogs as well as to keep them cognitively challenged.

We want to keep our furry friends cognitively exercised, and a variety of different puzzle toys will keep them on their toes.

The Twist ‘n Treat is very similar in concept to the Atomic Treat Ball. It is a puzzle toy filled with food and it’s up to the dog to figure out how to manipulate it to get the food out.

While the Atomic Treat Ball is our go-to puzzle toy to slow down speed eating (or to just keep one of our dogs busy), if it’s the only puzzle we give them it’s going to become less and less stimulating over time. In short, the name of the game is to not allow them to get bored.

It might seem as if both puzzles are exactly the same. However, the Twist ‘n Treat is much easier to learn and is usually the best first puzzle toy, especially for puppies.

The Atomic Treat Ball and the Twist ‘n Treat work differently enough that it keeps our dogs on their toes. We need to remember that canine cognition does not generalize well and that the two wildly different shapes of the toys essentially makes them two completely different skill sets for the dog.

Shaped like a flying saucer, the twist in Twist ‘n Treat refers to the rubber screw inside the toy that you twist to open in order to load the kibble or treats.

While the loading is more complicated than the Atomic Treat Ball, the fact that you can customize the size of the gap that dispenses the food means you have a lot more options in terms of what you can put in it and it makes for a great starter toy since you can make it easy at first then more difficult as your dog gets the hang of it.

While the Twist ‘n Treat is all upside for dogs, the thick rubber it’s made from tends to bounce pretty well and the shape causes it to roll – so don’t be surprised to find yourself hunting for it underneath furniture.

As with so many of the puzzle toys out there, the Twist ‘n Treat is not meant to be left alone with your dog – especially if they are a hard chewer.

Those minor quibbles aside, the Twist ‘n Treat is a really nice addition to your dog’s positive reinforcement cognitive toy box.  And for those of you whose dogs have not quite mastered other puzzle toys, this is a good learner-toy.

Things Your Dog Will Love: Atomic Treat Ball

The Atomic Treat Ball is a great positive reinforcement tool to control speed eating in dogs as well as to keep them cognitively challenged.

Atomic_Treat_Ball_mainDogs and other canids are natural problem solvers:  you can see it when wolves hunt, when the dogs in our Nose Work classes are tracking down the scent target, or when our own dogs are rooting for that single piece of kibble that fell behind their food bowls.

It’s what they’re wired to do, what they evolved to do, and it’s what they love to do, but the normal life of a dog living in a house doesn’t make for too many riddles to solve – except for the one we don’t want them to solve like how to open the garbage can lid, how to get into the closet, etc.

That’s where the Atomic Treat Ball comes in and why I’ve been using and recommending it to clients for years.

What initially drew me to the Atomic Treat Ball was Porthos had developed problems related to speed eating and I needed to find a way to allow him to get his full dinner in a measured, controlled way. It worked wonders to keep him from bloat and torsion, but after a while it became clear that although he loved the Atomic Treat Ball because it was filled with food he enjoyed it equally as much for the fun involved in getting the food out.

The trick behind the Atomic Treat Ball is in its design. If you take a look at the picture above you’ll see that it’s essentially shaped like four stacked hollow balls – in essence, a molecule – with a single loading hole in one of the balls. The pyramid shape allows dogs to easily roll the toy around without it going out of control under furniture and the single loading hole gives them a reasonably good chance of getting some food out with each go, but it’s an irregular enough reward schedule to neither bore them nor have them run out of kibble too quickly.

Also, unlike a lot of other puzzle toys the empty space inside the Atomic Treat Ball accommodates quite a bit of kibble or snacks. For Porthos we can actually fit about half of his kibble for each meal into his, which helps to slow down his eating greatly but is also really useful if you need to keep your dog busy for a while or if you want to give them a nice treat that will last if they need to spend extended time in their crates, playpens, taking a break from company or the fix-it person who doesn’t need your dog up their backside, etc.

The Atomic Treat Ball is cheap, easy, and – most importantly – it works. It’s a great tool to keep your dog cognitively challenged, which is as important to them as it is to humans as we grow older, and I believe that it’s an indispensable tool to have in our bag of positive reinforcement tricks.

Things Your Dog Will Love: MannersMinder

The MannersMinder is a wonderful positive reinforcement tool that allows us to reward good dog behavior at a distance but is a bit pricey.

Do these scenarios sound at all familiar:
  • There’s a knock on your door and it’s a race between you and your dog to see who can get there first?
  • Is the first thing company hears when they come for a visit the sound of barking and you on the other side of the door trying to get your dog to sit quietly?
  • How often do your guests have to greet your dogs before they can say hi to you?

These are all incredibly common behaviors in dogs and ones that I’m consulted on frequently, but they can also be extremely difficult for owners with less-than-stellar compliance to deal with because the things in play – a knock at the door, the commotion of guests coming, and the possibility of someone new entering the house – all can combine to push a dog’s buttons for good or bad.

Luckily, there’s a great tool out there for situations just like this that I’ve been using since it came out: the MannersMinder.

In short, the MannersMinder is way to dispense treats remotely for times when you just physically can’t give them to the dog or when you want to redirect the dog into a different location.

At its heart, the MannersMinder is a base unit that sits on the floor, filled with rewards, and a remote control. When the remote is clicked, the base unit makes a distinctive beeping noise and the treat is dispensed into a small tray on the side.

In addition to the manual remote control, the MannersMinder incorporates into the base unit volume control for the beeping and a good selection of automated timing controls that allow you to manually set the variable reward schedule. Similar to how it works remotely, when the automated timer goes off the base unit makes the same beeping noise and the treat comes out.

When you first start using the MannersMinder you’ll need to show your dog what it does the first time or two, but you’ll be amazed by how quickly they realize that it pays out and before long they’ll camp in front of it like seniors at a bank of slot machines.

Don’t just take my word for it, though.  Here are photos of two of my students, Boomer and Stella, demonstrating the awesome power of the variable reward schedule:

Now that you know what the MannersMinder is and what it does, why would you want it?

Let’s go back to the scenario above: someone knocking on your front door.

Rather than the mad dash to the front door to corral the dog with all the barking and jumping, when the doorbell rings just grab the MannersMinder remote, give it a click, and your dog will go running to the base unit rather then to see the company. Keep it in-hand and give it a click every now and then and your dog will be too distracted by yummy snacks that you’ll be able to greet your guests on your own terms and let them get comfortable before their furry friend comes to say hello.

Another great use for the MannersMinder is when you simply can’t physically get to your dog in order to be able to treat them for good behavior.

For example: we have very high ceilings and walls in our house and we’re frequently up on tall ladders painting.

If you’ve ever house painted you know that there’s a million different things that you don’t want your dog getting a hold of – wet mixing sticks, damp cleanup rags, paint lids, etc. – so if you’re up on a high ladder and you notice your dog going for something it shouldn’t have, how do reward them to leaving it alone when told to?

Simply click the MannersMinder remote that you’ve taken up with you.

Now this isn’t to say that the MannersMinder isn’t without a couple of areas for improvement:

  • The MannersMinder is on the pricey side. Most positive reinforcement tools are very economically priced, but this one comes in on the high side of things.
  • The MannersMinder only ships with one single remote control. If your dogs are like ours they may very well learn that it’s the remote that causes the yummy beeping, so the remote can become a valued resource they will want to get a hold of. A second one in the box would be great.
  • The batteries the MannersMinder remote control uses isn’t one of the normal type that you’re used to – AA, AAA, C, D, etc. – but is one of the kinds that you’ll need to look around for or order online. Stocking up is necessary.

Those minor quibbles aside, the MannersMinder is a great positive reinforcement tool that allows us to maintain our reward schedules without needing to be within close physical proximity to our dogs.

I find the MannersMinder to be an invaluable tool in my positive reinforcement bag of tricks and, if you choose to make the investment in one, I’m sure you will, too.