If you’re wondering if you should use treats to train a puppy, we say absolutely! This is because your puppy can’t resist a good treat – much like us. Well, and also because food is an essential thing that dogs need for survival, otherwise known as a Primary Reinforcer. 

You’ll use food rewards to help your puppy know they’re doing something you like to see, like going to the loo in the right area, sitting when asked or coming when we call them. In puppy language, food means they’re doing a good job.

How does reinforcement work with puppies? 

They work like pats on the back for people. Reinforcers are anything that your dog likes that will increase the likelihood of that behaviour happening again. To make it really simple, if your puppy sits and you hand them a treat, chances are they’ll sit the next time round. 

But all puppies are different, and others may prefer other reinforcers like

  • A stroke 
  • A game of tug
  • A tennis ball 
  • Saying hello to another dog 
man playing with small pup
Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

What’s the difference between low, medium and high value puppy treats?

Just like we have favourite treats, so do puppies. Different puppy rewards will have different values depending on the puppies palette. To give you a bit of a guide, we’ve compiled a list of how it usually works – but hey, broccoli just might have a special place in your puppy’s heart and see that as high value, so play it by ear as you get to know your puppy better. 

  • High value – Human grade low salt meats like tiny pieces of chicken, hot dog, beef, or cheese. 
  • Medium value – Most commercial dog treats ( slightly pricier dehydrated meats and jerky style treats tend to be at the top of the hierarchy)
  • Low value – Your puppy’s daily kibble and vegetables. Sweet potatoes tend to be quite popular.

How big should my puppy’s treats be?

Teeny tiny! The size of a pea. What we’re going for is just for a taste and swallow, rather than an entire meal. Puppy treats that are too big can slow training down as they will take more time to savour them.

Why does Zigzag recommend training your puppy with food treats?

It’s by far the fastest way to train your puppy. While other kinds of reinforcers can definitely be used later on, we want to keep puppies quite sharp and motivated in the initial stages. 

Of course, if your puppy prefers toys then you can use those instead. The main thing is that you’re getting the behaviour you want. 

Won’t my puppy get fat eating so many treats?

Chubby puppies are adorable, but you’re right in raising that question. Worth bearing in mind, food rewards do not have to equal high fat or high calorie treats. It’s a good idea to weigh out how much food your puppy should have in the day and put some aside to use for training. 

puppy gently taking treat from owners hand
Photo by Ayla Verschueren on Unsplash

What if my puppy won’t work for their kibble?

Some puppies can surprisingly be uninterested in kibble. If this is the case for yours, you can try this trick when training:

  1. Get a ziploc bag and place some of your puppy’s kibble inside.
  2. Add to the bag some medium and high value treats.
  3. Shake with good energy so that the kibble gets well-coated with the yummy smells of the better-tasting treats. 

Now you’ve got a bit of a ‘lucky dip’ as to which treats are going to come out of the bag, and far more appealing kibble.

Is using food treats bribing my puppy?

Nope. We hear it often at Zigzag, but no, they work very differently to bribes. When you’re in the beginning stages of training, your puppy has no idea what they’re supposed to be doing. Learning takes practice, patience and persistence for them, so treats act as lures when we use them for teaching. 

Lures and bribes are different, by the way.

How does lure and reward work?

Okay. Here’s what lures are: Getting your puppy to follow a treat until their body is in the position you want it to be in and can be rewarded. Once the puppy has followed the lure a few times, you remove the lure and switch to a hand signal and reward your puppy. After that you’ll switch to a verbal cue. Voilà. 

This is what bribing is: Bribing means that food is always there for your puppy to see. 

The main difference is that with lures, your puppy isn’t reliant on the food being in sight in order for them to carry out what you asked them to do. With time, they’ll learn to do it when you say it – like a magic spell. So rather than seeing training as ‘bribing’, think of your dog’s food as currency, you’re paying for a job well done!

puppy chewing toy
Photo by Justin Veenema on Unsplash

Want to learn more? Download the Zigzag puppy training app where you can access a library of lessons to help you train your puppy using positive reinforcement. You’ll also get access to our team of Puppy Experts who are happy to help you every step of the way.

Looking for more great puppy training advice and tips? Check out our tips for new puppy owners, next.