Every so often someone asks me this question, and the answer is: Yes, definitely. Giving your dog too many treats creates problems both mentally and physically. Let’s talk about that.
This is obvious: too many treats creates a dog who’s overweight and who doesn’t eat his or her food (and therefore is malnourished). If you need to give your dog a lot of treats for training purposes, and you don’t want either of these to happen, consider giving your dog a high quality kibble as their “treat.” Either reserve half their breakfast as their “treats” for the day, or buy a whole different kind of kibble and use that as treats. Either way, you want to adjust their food accordingly.
Too many treats (aka, too much sugar) can also cause health problems such as diabetes in dogs. Keep your dog healthy: cut down on the treats.
Far more importantly for training purposes, giving dogs too many treats causes mental problems. Now, I don’t mean it makes your dogs crazy (though dogs, like humans, get sugar highs). I mean it causes problems that are governed by the brain. For instance, if your dog is getting treats at random, then when you ask them to work for a treat (sit, come, be friendly, don’t jump, behave), they have no reason to do so. Why work for something when you’re going to get it for free later?
In addition, if they’re used to getting high value treats — whether it’s because they’ve worked for them or just because they’re getting treats in general — then low value treats will lose their incentive. Why should I work for carrots when I normally get potato chips? Your dog feels the same way!
Sometimes people will ask me if they can give their dog treats “just because.” The answer is yes, but rarely. The more training the dog is undergoing, the fewer “just because” treats they should get — we want them to be motivated for training! My dogs, who rarely have to learn anything new anymore, get “just because” treats once a week. Some dogs get them once a day. But those dogs are dogs who are PERFECTLY BEHAVED and have no problems! If you need your dog to be motivated by food, use treats sparingly.
Now, if you can’t stand the thought of giving them no treats except when they work for it, try giving them their kibble as an occasional (occasional) treat. It’s a fun snack, and it’s low value.
“Jenna!” I hear you cry. “What do you mean, ‘work for it’? What does that entail? I always ask my dog to sit before I give her a treat!”
If I ask Lily to sit, and she sits, she DOES NOT get a treat. She’s not working for it. She knows that command like the back of her hand. She’s done it a million times. It’s automatic. If, however, I ask her to sit and stay as we answer the door, she gets a treat for that. Not because she doesn’t know how to sit or stay, but because doing so in the face of TWO NEW HANDS TO PET HER is really hard. She has to work at that, so she gets a treat. When I try to teach her something brand new, she gets not just a treat, but a high value treat — something to create incentive to work hard and learn this difficult new thing, rather than giving up or getting bored and walking away.
Ideally, unless your dog has no problems whatsoever, they should only get treats when they work for it. Low value treats or kibble are perfect for easy things. High value treats should be reserved for harder things. But note that if you give them a lot of low value treats, they’ll be too full for the high value treats! So, regardless, don’t over-do it. If your dog is in training, reserve treats for that. If they’re mostly perfect, give them occasional (once a week to once a day) low value treats. If they’re having to really work on something, nix the treats altogether unless it’s for training.
Finally, I get a lot of people who say the following:
Spouse 1: Our dog doesn’t jump on people when I tell him not to.
Spouse 2: Our dog jumps on everyone, no matter what I tell him!
This is extremely common. Dogs relate differently to different people, and respond differently to different people, and have different manners for different people! If you are Spouse 1, and you don’t have a problem with your dog but someone else in your family does and is training them… don’t, for the love of god, undermine that person’s efforts by filling your dog up on treats, or giving your dog high value treats so they’re uninterested in more treats! If one person in the family is training, the others in the family need to support those efforts in the easiest way possible: by not interfering.
So, in short:
If your dog is nearly perfect (for everyone in the family), they can have a low value “just because” treat once a week to once a day.
If your dog is in training, reserve treats for training.
If they are in training, use high value treats for the hard stuff, and low value treats for the easy stuff. Don’t fill them up on low value treats!
And finally: Support each other!