Asking dogs to learn tricks without any treats is a downright scary proposition! So, just in time for Halloween, we asked some trainers to let us peek inside their treat bags. From sardines to string cheese, they’ve got some pretty good stuff in there.
“Especially in the shelter, I’m a huge fan of a product called Red Barn,” says Stephanie Collingsworth, CPDT-KA at Multnomah County Animal Services. “It comes in a big log that looks like a sausage roll, and sometimes comes in other brand names like Natural Balance. It crumbles nicely so you can sprinkle it over food, it smells great, and it freezes — so you can freeze little blocks to use for training treats. Otherwise, my other go-to is string cheese sticks.”
String cheese gets a thumbs-up from just about everybody, partly because most dogs go nuts for it. It’s considered a high value treat, meaning it’s extra delicious.
“I love using it at the shelter with dogs that might not be feeling so friendly,” says trainer Micaela Frank of Eugene. “There's often a moment where they get this look as if to say, ‘Oh! There's cheese involved! Okay, let's talk.’” String cheese is the go-to treat for other reasons, as well. As Frank points out, it’s portable, easy to pocket for quick access, affordable, and convenient to obtain during routine grocery shopping.
Another string cheese advantage: it’s low-fat, says Cindy Rich, MS, KPA-CTP of Learned Dog in Yamhill, OR. But string cheese isn’t the only goody in Rich’s treat bag. “For super-duper high-value treats, my dogs like cooked chicken, canned meaty baby food, canned cat food, and occasionally sardines,” she says. Turkey or chicken dogs are another favorite, and preferable to Rich as they’re lower in fat than beef hot dogs.
Helix Fairweather, KPA-CTP of Your Dog’s Personal Trainer in Keizer, OR, likes to cook some of the fat out of turkey dogs by cutting them into very small pieces, placing them on a paper towel, and microwaving until they’re dried out. “The fat goes into the paper towels, which you can then put into covered containers to flavor kibble or cheerios to use for training treats.” Fairweather also likes freeze-dried liver. Occasionally she’ll pick up a bag of frozen meatballs at the grocery. “I cut them into small pieces, when they’re still mostly frozen and easy to cut,” she adds.
The true trick about treats is finding what truly motivates your dog. Giving her a reward that really grabs her attention is the bottom line. And speaking of bottoms, Fairweather points out that some dogs are most motivated by butt rubs and skritches or other non-food treats — including permission to do ordinarily “naughty” behaviors “like permission to jump on the trainer, or to run off and play (on cue, of course).
A final tidbit to stash in your bag of tricks: keep track of the portions. Obesity is as much of a problem for pets as humans, and in addition to keeping fat content fairly low, we need to control quantity. “If we’ve had a long training session and gone through a couple cheese sticks and a hot dog, I’m going to cut the meal by ¼ cup that night,” says Collingsworth. “I’m also a fan of using the dog’s daily portion of food for a treat. You can stash a pocketful of their breakfast kibble and reward them for sitting while you go about your household chores.”
Want to try something unique? Trainer Helix Fairweather posts recipes for her favorite homemade treats, from Mackerel Snackers to Tuna Brownies, at HelixFairweather.com.