How NOT To Train Your Dog With Treats

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Want to know how not to train your dog with food treats? Follow my lead. Because I really blew it.

Learn about the wrong way to train your dog with treats.(Honey the golden retriever and Pam wait for the parade to begin.)

So you gave me too many yummy treats at the wrong time. I forgive you. I really do.

My Training Fail

Boy, was I embarrassed.

The park ranger invited Honey to join us inside for her talk about the Depression-era paintings of the Cape Lookout area. We promised that Honey would behave and that if anyone expressed discomfort with having her there, I would take her outside.

Learn about the wrong way to train your dog with treats.(Shackleford Horses painting.)

One of the paintings we went to see. We admired them greatly. Honey didn’t even look up.

Honey’s biggest challenge is remaining calm when meeting new people. So I had the smart idea of plying her with treats to keep her focused on me instead of on the ranger or anyone else who stopped in for the talk.

It was a huge mistake.

Honey became so aroused by the stinky treats that she went into full-on begging mode. She had trouble sitting still. She put on her little demanding posture she uses when she wants something from me.

And I can’t blame her. It was all my fault.

I had made a poor choice. I forgot what I knew about training and rewards. And I caused the kinds of problems I had hoped to avoid.

3 Things I Forgot

I forgot three important ideas about training and rewards. Read carefully so you can avoid the same problems.

Bribery is not training

Yeah, I wasn’t training Honey with treats. I was bribing her.

I was so worried about her showing too much interest in a stranger at the wrong time that I resorted to treats when I should not have. But there was nothing about keeping stinky treats under Honey’s nose that trained her to be calm when greeting strangers.

If Honey showed signs of being too excited by meeting someone, I should have done what we do when Mike walks Honey to meet me somewhere off the boat:

  1. Ask Honey to sit as soon as I come into view (preferably before she sees me at all);
  2. If Honey gets up or tries to pull toward me, I stop walking toward her;
  3. When Honey relaxes, I walk a little closer;
  4. We repeat every step until Honey is reliably calm;
  5. Only when Honey looks relaxed do I walk up and greet her.

By doing this every time, Honey learns that she doesn’t get what she wants (to greet me) until she relaxes.

Learn about the wrong way to train your dog with treats. (Honey the golden retriever waits with Mike in front of a boat.)

I’m calm. I’m calm. Now bring those tacos over here.

It’s a little harder to do with strangers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encouraged Honey to greet a stranger calmly just to have the same stranger scream in a high-pitched voice and pat his chest to encourage Honey to jump up.

But it is possible to do the same thing by walking away if Honey isn’t capable of a calm greeting.

Bribery is easy. Training is better.

Trust the training

I was so desperate for Honey to behave I stuffed her muzzle with treats. You’d think she turned into a Tasmanian devil at the sight of a friendly stranger.

But I’ve been working on calm greetings with Honey since she was a wee pup. She even passed her Canine Good Citizen test (although greeting strangers calmly took two attempts).

For Honey, an overenthusiastic greeting is when she wags her tail enough to create gusts measurable on an anemometer. And when her paws dance lightly on the floor. She doesn’t jump. She doesn’t bark.

Learn about the wrong way to train your dog with treats. (Santa Claus arrives on a fire truck in Beaufort, NC.)

Honey’s dream job is to be a Walmart greeter. But this week, she wanted to be Santa’s golden helper.

But I’ve met people who felt overwhelmed by even Honey’s mild excitement. And I guess I’ve internalized their implied criticism of her manners.

In truth, Honey is an excellent greeter. Not perfect. But pretty darn good. Especially considering how much she loves meeting strangers.

I guess I just need to trust the training. And rely on Honey to do what she has worked on for the past eight years.

But I still made one last mistake…

Match the reward with the task

The treats I bribed Honey with were on board to help coax her on and off the boat in challenging situations. They were mini liver treats. They smelled delicious—if you like that sort of thing.

Honey does.

The rewards were too high-value to encourage calm behavior. They were stinky enough to break through mild fear. But too stinky to slip into the background of other indoor smells.

Learn about the wrong way to train your dog with treats. (Honey the golden retriever looks for a bite of taco.)

Tacos make a wonderful training treat. Don’t you want to reward me for sitting so pretty?

If I was going to make the mistake of bribing Honey with rewards, I should have picked something less tempting. Like spinach.

Why It Matters

Honey behaved reasonably during the park ranger’s half hour talk. And the ranger seemed to feel she behaved well enough that she even gave Honey a junior park ranger badge to wear. So my training fail didn’t shatter the world.

Learn about the wrong way to train your dog with treats. (Honey the golden retriever with her junior park ranger badge.)

You make it sound like I’m an out-of-control pup. Don’t you see my junior park ranger badge?

But we live on a boat. We travel a lot. And Honey goes nearly everywhere with us when we leave the boat.

We need Honey to be polite enough that we continue to be invited indoors. I take her role as a positive canine ambassador very seriously. And we’ve heard “We used to allow dogs but after one (pooped on the floor; bit someone; jumped up on the furniture; started a land war in Asia; choose one), we had to ban them” too many times.

So I’ll try to be better about using rewards properly with Honey. And hopefully she’ll continue being her usual sweet self.

Welcome to First Monday’s Positive Pet Training Blog Hop hosted by Tenacious Little Terrier, Travels with Barley and Wag ‘n Woof Pets. Please share your responsible pet owner positive pet training tips by linking a blog post or leaving a comment below. Our theme for this month is rewards but any positive reinforcement training posts or comments are also always welcome. The Positive Pet Training Blog Hop goes all week long.

Like it? Pin it for later!Learn about the wrong way to train your dog with treats (golden retriever in shadow).


  1. It’s a shame how many dogs are not behaving correctly and ruin it for all dogs. Actually, it is the human’s fault, but dogs are blamed. We were reminded of all the poor manners at the mall waiting to see Santa last weekend. So many people were clueless with their dogs. Mom was there once too she says with her first dog, years ago, but pooping or peeing in places was never something that happened.

    • I don’t expect much from most people who live with dogs. Where we’re currently docked, my husband and I are picking up several poops every time we walk Honey–and she only goes once!

      But I was really disappointed at the irresponsible behavior at BlogPaws. I would have thought people involved enough with their pets to write about them would have more sense. Sadly, it wasn’t true for everyone.

      But we press on. Hopefully well mannered dogs like you and Bailie and Honey will keep showing people how nice it is to have polite dogs in public.

  2. That’s a powerful distinction (bribery & training). I hope I keep that distinction in my mind when I’m out with Elsa and she goes all Ozzy Osbourne over a dog half a block away. Thanks for sharing a powerful lesson.

    • After all these years, I should know better. But as any parent will say, sometimes you just hope for a little bit of peace and you’ll do anything to get it. 🙂

      BTW, I suspect Elsa behaves better than Ozzy Osbourne. I’m willing to bet she’s less addled. LOL

  3. Our dogs are hyper when it comes to treats in general, and with people I prefer not to use them because they can get out of control. (nipping, grabbing treat). They are much better at learning things when they are by themselves. Believe me I’ve done the bribe thing, it doesn’t work with my dogs. Seems like it always backfires in my face.

    Hope you’re not beating yourself up too much, Pamela. I think it is a common mistake among dog owners. Thanks for pointing it out. 🙂

    • Just goes to show, no matter how much time we spend around dogs there’s already so much more to learn. And that’s before we have to re-remember things we already knew. 🙂

  4. Full confession: I have definitely bribed Ruby a few times and I appreciate your pointing out the difference. Though usually this happens at home (not in public) when I am rushing out the door and she is acting stressed about my leaving. She does have a few issues from her previous life before us (we adopted her at age 7) and as a result is sometimes is mildly reactive to men that she doesn’t know that approach her from a certain angle. We continue to work through this with her. As a result, I am really careful when I take her to events and other places where she might face some of her triggers. Fortunately, I can pick her up and remove her from situations when she starts to get stressed.

    • I don’t think there’s a single person who never bribed their pup with treats. And I bet it’s true for professional trainers as well.

      But I like your idea of picking Ruby up when you need to. Although Honey weighs 50 pounds, she is lifted on and off the boat several times a day. I guess if I was really worried about her being too enthusiastic, I could pick her up too. 🙂

  5. Mr. N goes almost everywhere with me too so I’m also strict about manners so he’s welcomed and not shunned! We had a trifecta of temptations the other day which included another dog (but a service dog so obviously he couldn’t play with him), a child eating fast food and a guinea pig! Mr. N managed to keep his cool but I fretted over it.
    And I think we all use bribery sometimes! Asking for incompatible behaviors helps sometimes. People WILL pet him over the head which Mr. N doesn’t like and sometimes complains about so I get people to ask him for a high five which he likes doing and they find fascinating enough to get distracted so they don’t pet him over the head!

  6. http://Mike says

    From the Husband:
    Pam, I don’t want you bribing Honey with treats anymore. After all, that’s *my* job.

  7. IF any good can come of a dog (or multiple dogs) developing super-sensitive stomachs, it’s the fact that one has to be extremely careful about re-introducing treats once the stomach has settled down and into a bland diet. As a result, I had to adapt Callie’s, Shadow’s and Ducky’s training to use praise instead of treats. But that was 4-5 years ago. I still mostly use the same treats that I started with because I don’t want to upset the proverbial apple cart.

    As for bribery, hubby uses spoonfuls of ice cream, bites of his own dinner, etc…all the things that in excess upset Shadow’s and (to a lesser degree) Ducky’s tummies. And then gets angry with me when I insist that he stop bribing them. But that’s coming from the dementia.

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