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 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- There’s a fairly even mixture of high-, mid-, and low-end snacks.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.