The number one question I receive from owners learning to clicker train their dogs: what makes a great training treat? Here are the things I recommend you consider when choosing treats to use while training your dog.
You will be using a lot of treats when training your dog. In order to avoid weight gain, cut your training treats into the tiniest pieces possible. My rule of thumb is that treats should be no larger than the size of a pea; for itty-bitty dogs, the treats should be half that size.
At this time, there are only two commercial dog training treats on the market that come right out of the bag small enough for training: Bocce’s Training Treats and Crumps Naturals Beef Liver Mini Trainers. Everything else you’ll need to break or cut into smaller pieces.
All treats should be broken or cut smaller before your training session. It’s not fair to your dog to make them wait while you mess around with your treats. This lull in your training rhythm can lead to your dog getting distracted or mentally “checking out” from your training session.
As a general rule, I don’t recommend crunchy treats for training. Crunchy treats make a mess and encourage your dog to sniff the floor and hunt for crumbs, taking their attention from you. Dog biscuits are okay as an occasional snack, but leave them out of your organized training sessions. Soft treats are much easier and faster for dogs to chew.
Every once in a blue moon, I do encounter a dog that strongly prefers crunchy treats to soft ones! For those dogs, biscuits made for “small breed” dogs and freeze-dried training treats tend to work quite well.
If you have a small dog or a finicky dog, try a GoToob filled with a creamy, spreadable treat like canned dog food, cream cheese, or liverwurst. Most dogs love the consistency!
The golden rule of dog training is this: your dog decides what is reinforcing. One dog’s favorite, most desired treat might be mediocre to one dog, and revolting to another. Experiment with different flavors and textures of treats: sweet, salty, meaty, crunchy, chewy, mushy. Make a list of treats that your dog enjoys and try to build on it.
Offering your dog a treat they do not like can actually be punishing to them. Imagine a food that you hate: perhaps cilantro, sardines, or jalapeños. Now imagine that you walked to a nearby convenience store and all they had for sale was that food, and that food only. How likely would you be to go to that store again?
It’s so important to select a treat that your dog thinks is amazing. Get creative and be willing to experiment to find something they’re crazy for!
Ease of Handling
You need to be able to get treats out of your pocket or bait bag quickly, and shuffle treats around in your hand with ease. If they are sticky or goopy, it will slow down your training.
Cheese is a very popular dog treat, but warm temperatures (such as your body heat) can cause it to become melty or oily. Keeping cheese in a cooler until you use it will help tremendously. Cut your cheese into small pieces in advance rather than ripping or tearing it, which creates crumbs.
Dogs tend to love certain types of food that is not very easy to handle, such as canned dog food and peanut butter. With a bit of ingenuity, you can still use these foods. You can use a spoon to deliver them to your dog. A long-handled wooden spoon works great for tall handlers with small dogs. As mentioned above, a refillable squeeze tube like a GoToob is another great way to dispense soft, mushy food.
In certain situations, you will want training treats with a certain appearance. If you are tossing treats on to your dog’s mat or into the crate, you will want to make sure there is a color contrast between the treat and the surface you are putting it on. At Crossbones, our training hall floor is black, so we recommend bringing light-colored treats so your dog can find them quickly. Time spent sniffing around, hunting for treats is time wasted.
Similarly, if you’re tossing treats, you may not want a round treat that will roll away from your dog. Consider treats that are square or rectangular instead.
Need some ideas?
Here are some great treats we recommend trying with your dog!
- Happy Howie’s meat roll (learn how to cut these treats super fast)
- Hot dogs or kielbasa
- Whipped cream cheese, on a spoon or in a GoToob
- Canned dog food, like Wellness Just For Puppy, on a spoon or in a GoToob
- Vital Essentials freeze-dried Mini Nibs for larger dogs (you can cut them with a small serrated knife)
- The Honest Kitchen Meaty Littles
- Nuggets Bone Broth Jerky
Editor’s note: I originally published this post in 2015. I completely updated it in August 2022 as an effort to provide you, dear reader, with even more useful dog training information. Enjoy!