One question that I frequently get from clients is about their dog putting on weight when I discuss using food to train. Many people are concerned that by giving their dog lots of treats they'll contribute to a possible weight problem. I've heard this from both pet owners and veterinary professionals. It is very true that many of our pet dogs are overweight or obese, and that this can contribute to shorter lifespans and other health issues, but truthfully most of the overweight dogs I meet are simply overfed, under-exercised, and simply getting too many calories. Just like with humans, if a dog is taking in more calories than they are spending they will start to accumulate weight, This does not mean you can't use treats in training, you just may need to change what you're doing in terms of your dog's regular feeding and choose your treats wisely. It's entirely possible (simple, really!) to keep your dog at a steady weight or to lose weight even while training using positive reinforcement. If you'd like a good visual reference for the ideal weight for dogs see this body condition score from The World Animal Small Veterinary Association, and obviously chat with your vet if this is a concern.
So, here are my favorite tips for helping your dog maintain or lose weight even while training:
Use their meals
This is one of the most common tips given, and it does work as long as A) your dog really likes their kibble and B) you aren't working around too many distractions. Even for a dog that likes their kibble, you often times need a more novel and high value treat to compete with real life distractions like other dogs and prey animals. But if you're working indoors in a controlled environment kibble may do! So, if you give your dog two cups of food a day, reserve 1 cup for training, and give your dog only a half cup at each feeding.
Cut back on their meals
If using the kibble isn't going to work, you can still use your dog's favorite treats (see my resources page for my favorite treat suggestions), but cut back on your dog's typical kibble. An example, my dog Regis is supposed to get about 2.5 cups of kibble a day. I do a LOT of training with Regis on our walks and in structured training sessions, so I actually only end up feeding him probably 1.5 cups a day to keep him at a healthy weight. The rest of his calories come from high quality treats, most of which are the ones listed below.
Use whole diet treats
If you're concerned about your dog missing out on nutrients in their typical diet by using treats in place of kibble, or you have a small dog and have less wiggle room with calories you might consider using one of the many alternative foods on the market. When most people think of dog food they think of kibble, but there are a TON of alternatives to kibble on the market that are whole diet foods that are high value enough that many dogs will do back flips for them! Here are some of my favorites, many are available on amazon, chewy.com, Bentley's, Kriser's, and Pet Supplies Plus:
- Stella and Chewy's Patties
- Natural Balance Food Rolls
- Real meat dog food
- Honest Kitchen Whole Food Clusters: These are very new and are not widely available yet.
- Fresh Pet
Use low calorie treats
There are treats on the market that are marketed as low calorie; some of these treats are going to be more tempting to your dog than others. You can also use food like cheerios, steamed green beans or other veggies, or boiled chicken breast, which are all pretty low in calories.
Double check your treat sizes
I always say that treats should be about the size of a pea, OR the size of half your pinky finger nail. Dogs don't need huge, honking treats to be reinforced, just a tiny morsel will do. If you purchase treats from the store cut them in half or quarters before your training session. Or buy treats like Happy Howie's, which you cut to your preferred size.
Vary your reinforcers.
I know that when most people think of positive reinforcement they think of food treats (I do too!), but it helps to have a wide variety of reinforcers that your dog will work for. Using play, toys, and life opportunities such as going outside can help to curb the use of food during training; if your dog LOVES tennis balls, try to work some reps of obedience cues or tricks into your games of fetch (this will also help to build impulse control around your dog's toys!)
So, if you think that you can't use treats to train because you're afraid of your dog putting on weight, think again! It's entirely possible to use positive reinforcement training using treats and keep your dog at a healthy weight, it just sometimes takes some thinking ahead! Happy training!