Last updated on December 4, 2019
Whether you’ve got a 12-week-old puppy or a 14-years-young couch potato, you can train your dog new commands. With the right motivation, your dog will always love to learn!
The motivator that most people start with is treats. Pet stores sell an immense selection ranging from crunchy to chewy jerky to small and soft. Flavors include all the smelly meats you can think of, plus cheese, peanut butter, pumpkin, berries, and various combinations. You can also make your own training treats by boiling chicken, turkey, hot dog, or other meat and cutting it up into small pieces. If store-bought treats fail to keep your pooch’s attention, try using straight-up meat bits. If even that doesn’t work, then your dog simply isn’t food motivated.
When shopping for treats, pay attention to where they are made, what ingredients are in them, and how many calories each treat is. Treats made in the USA have to meet certain regulations and brands could face legal consequences or consumer distrust if anything goes wrong.
Dog food ingredient lists look just like human food ingredient lists – often full of big words and chemicals. Sure, they could be entirely safe and normal. But also like people food, some brands work to use whole food ingredients. If chicken or beef or whatever flavor is the first ingredient in the list, that’s a great start. If you look, you’ll find brands that only use whole foods and those that even go grain free.
Calories are sometimes also denoted as kilocalories or “kcals” packaging. Large treats or chews will often recommend only one or two treats per day based on your dog’s weight, and are usually greater than 25 kcals each. If you are training basic commands or tricks, you probably won’t go through more than a handful of treats in a session. You can use larger, chewier treats, but you’ll still need to find something around 10 kcals or less that doesn’t have such a limiting restriction. if you’re practicing a series of commands or in a training class, you’ll need lots of smaller treats that you can give often and your dog can chew quickly. For those times, you want the soft and small treats with as few kcals as possible.
Some of my favorite treats for Murphy:
- Pet Botanicals Mini Training Rewards – 1.5 kcals – My go-to training treats with a variety of flavors to keep things interesting
- Zuke’s Mini Naturals – 2.2 kcals – Come in larger quantities, perfect for when I’m heading to a multi-day dog show
- Blue Wilderness Denali Stix – 20 kcals – Cheese sticks are greasy and were taking me too long to rip apart, so I replaced them with these super soft sticks. Easy to break into pieces with one hand and are really smelly so they catch Murphy’s attention too.
- Charlee Bear Original Crunch – 3 kcals – These are like goldfish for dogs. Very crunchy and VERY crumbly. Not great when you need to carry around training treats in your hand or pocket, but great as a low calorie distraction.
If a dog isn’t food motivated, maybe using a ball or tug rope will work! Practice a command, and then let your dog have a good tug or fetch the ball. Practice the command again, tug again, and so on. You’ll be able to work up to longer training sessions a few minutes or more, and then have a few minutes of play. Eventually you can take your dog into any performance trial and they’ll be excited to work knowing play comes after.
Even dogs who work better with other motivators will enjoy a play session with their favorite toy after training!
I use playtime to strengthen Murphy’s “drop it” and “leave it” commands, rather than trying to get him to leave a pile of treats alone. As soon as he follows the command, play continues, so there’s an immediate reward for him.
My late corgi girl Amber refused to return a ball or let go of a rope and instead wanted to play keep away. I made it clear to everyone who sees Murphy on a daily basis to not chase him when he has toys in his mouth, and gave him a treat every time he came back, reinforcing both the game of fetch AND letting go of the toy to receive a treat.
Many dogs enjoy a head rub or back scratch when they’ve done well. I was able to wean Amber completely off treats and just give her a good rubbing down after an agility run. Murphy, however, does not like being touched during training or playtime and will bark and jump away, so it really is based on your dog’s personality and preferred motivators.
I consider praise to be the most important motivator. No matter what other motivators you use with your dog, they want to know that you are happy with them! They will immediately pick up on your tone, which is why a strong, deep-voiced “NO” can be so affective when doing something they shouldn’t be. When training, pairing other motivators with enthusiastic encouragement keeps your dog engaged and excited to work!