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Every once in a while when I was teaching more (and sometimes still when out and about) people will say something like, “If I use food for training my dog will be obese!” or “My dog loves food so much, I can’t use it for training or he will get even fatter!” or “I have such a small dog, there is no way I could use food rewards with them, they don’t eat enough to do it!”
Yea, that’s poppy cock. Poppy cock I say.
Sure if you didn’t put any thought what so ever into the amount and type of calories your dog is consuming and the amount of exercise they are getting they will get fat. But with a bit of thought and planning, you can use food rewards with minimal risk on average of having an obese dog.
Note: In this post I am not referencing dogs with medical conditions that require strict food or other management as instructed by a veterinarian. As always follow the instructions and advice of your veterinarian. In this post I’m talking about your generally medically unrestricted around food, meals and other dog.
When clients would say such things I’d say, “hang on a minute, let me go grab Tom and Zora or which ever dogs were in my life at that time (or photos of them)…” Because you see I don’t have fat dogs. I have svelte in shape, well muscled, trim and fit dogs. Who get a lot of food rewards when we are actively training. And a fair share of food rewards throughout the day regardless for various things on any given day. And who also eat 2 meals a day of very good quality dry dog food. Neither of whom is a super high energy, happy to exercise themselves non-stop type of dog, sure they love their walks and to play with us but if we humans aren’t doing anything they chill and sleep. Yet they aren’t even close to being fat. Seriously my vet has wanted to use them as positive examples on what a fit dog looks like for other clients.
Not possible, you say? I must have some kind of black magic, you say?
Nope. As a good friend of mine who also happens to be a vet tech says, “Calories in must not exceed calories out.”
So how do I make sure that happens while still training using food rewards?
A couple of ways.
- I manage the amount of food they get in their twice daily meals based on what we are or aren’t doing that day. I also take into account how their body condition is feeling over the previous few days. If when I have my hands on them I think to myself, “Hmm, when did Tom get so ribby?” It’s a sign I need to increase his food ration for a few days. Or “Why is Zora feeling a bit thick around the middle?” Is a sign I should cut her back for a couple of meals. Tom usually feels good weight wise when he’s around 63#s, Zora at about 23.5#. But they get weighed realistically once or twice a year when they happen to have a vet appointment. I don’t go by the scale, I go by how their body condition feels under my hands.
2. I break food that I am using for rewards up into small bits. Bits tend to be about the size of my pinky finger nail. Most times the dog gets 1 bit per repetition or reinforcement event. My hands are bad so I tend to drop a fair share, which they learn not to grab at. And I also sometimes give them 2 or 3 at a go when again my hands are being frustratingly uncooperative and dexterity is down. In terms of calories, for example a Zuke’s brand mini training treat which is if I remember right 3 calories, I get at least 4-6 training reward bits out of 1 Zuke’s mini or .75 of a calorie per reward bit. Though to be honest I don’t use those types of treats very often as they aren’t a preferred one for my dogs, but to give a reference point familiar to many people. Or a Charlie Bear treat which is 2 calories per disk, I break those up to usually 3-5 training reward bits (but again rarely use them as they are really low on my dog’s value scale)
3. If I’m really breaking down a complex behavior and/or doing some shaping work and building up a behavior over a period of many sessions, often I use at least one if not both of the daily meals for training time as well. Usually I don’t train for their entire meal, but will train using say 1/3 to 3/4 of the kibble (depends on which dog and how much they are eating that meal and what we are working on) then the remainder they get as their meal in their dish. If for some reason (such as a medical one) I have to stick to kibble as the reward, I take a hammer to the kibble pieces and break them up even further.
4. I am careful about what types of food rewards I use. I try to avoid ones that have added sugar, or are really grain heavy as I find carbs and sugar will pack the pounds on my dogs much faster than food rewards that are higher protein, and meat or veggie based. Sometimes there will be a carb based treat (like those teddy bear shaped ones in the photo above) that my dogs seem to really really enjoy, so I will use those but am careful to break them up small and to mix in other higher protein rewards so the training session isn’t using all carb based treats.
5. I keep training sessions short. Usually intense but short. Depending on the session I might use 10-20 reward bits per training session. We might have any where from 1-6 of those length training sessions during a day depending on what we are working on, how much time I have and what else is going on in life, but I’ve learned that short planned out sessions are more effective for reaching my training goals overall than longer poorly planned sessions. So if we go back to my treat math calorie examples above. Say I’m using Zukes at 3 calories per out of the package Zuke. I get 4 reward bits from 1 Zuke. And I used 15 reward bits each training session for 3 sessions that day. (3 calories/4 bits) x 15 reward bits x 3 training sessions = 33.75 calories in reward bits for training for that day. For comparison adult dry dog food has on average 300-500 calories per cup depending on brand and formula.
6. I manage the amount of exercise they get based on how many food rewards and calories they got that day. If we’ve been working on training a more static, less movement based behavior then I’ll incorporate more active calorie burning play into our break sessions and as rewards as well. So yes I could see if you had a 5# Papillon you might need to incorporate more toy play into your sessions as reward, but you still can absolutely use food rewards for portions of your training sessions.
So yes, you absolutely can have fit and trim dogs of varying sizes, body type and age while training with food rewards. It, as with anything, takes some thought, care and awareness.