Weaning Off Treats

Treats have an important place in training.

Not only do they give some extra motivation when you’re teaching a difficult new skill,  but they provide instant gratification, a way of really marking a success as something to celebrate and be happy about.

But once the skill is acquired, treats are no longer motivation.

They are bribes.

Many parents have used candy treats during potty training. But as an adult, if your mother is still popping by your house to give you a brownie whenever you successfully manage to avoid wetting yourself, then I have to take my hat off to you and ask you what your secret is.

(Besides, after giving birth to a child, wetting oneself seems to be less a matter of training and more a matter of physical inability to hold one’s urine.I have wet myself more times in the last three years than I did have since I was a small child. Bright side: Recently my son caught me changing my pants and reassured me, “it’s okay, Mommy. It was a accident. Oh well. That happens.”)

The key is to reduce the rewards slowly and gradually, as the puppy or child gets in the habit of performing the new skill.

So, at first, you give your puppy a big treat and lots of praise whenever it lies down on command.

However, once your puppy can do it reliably every time, it’s time to get rid of those treats. If you don’t, you’re going to turn into one of those people who needs to offer a treat to their full grown dog just to convince it to obey a basic command that it has known since puppyhood.

*head shake*

…You aren’t one of those people, are you?

If so, you really need this post.

How To Wean Your Puppy Toddler Off of Treats

You can interpret this picture as toffee or dog treats, depending on the application

You can interpret this picture as toffee or dog treats, depending on the application

Step 1

Continue to expect the new skill to be performed regularly, but gradually reduce the size and quality of the reward. What used to result in freeze-dried liver or a chocolate candy now results in kibble or a single sticker. (Note: please don’t feed chocolate candy to your dog. It’s toxic. You probably CAN feed freeze dried liver to your child, but in my experience humans don’t appreciate it nearly as much as dogs do.) 

For example, if you have been potty training your child with candies and stickers, you might announce to her that you are very proud of her potty success, and now she will only get a sticker for pees, but a sticker AND a candy only if she poops.

A week after that, cut out the candies entirely, and only give a sticker for pees.

Step 2

Start to “forget” to give treats after a mediocre success. When your puppy does his twentieth down on the living room carpet, praise him and move on without giving any kind of treat. By the same token, when your child does her second or third pee of the morning, praise her and then move on to something else.

Do NOT forget to give treats for exceptional successes – when your child potties in the mall restroom for the first time, or interrupts her play to tell you that she needs to go, for example, or if your puppy performs a “down” at the vet clinic.

Gradually increase the number of times you “forget” to give the reward, until only the really impressive stuff is still being rewarded.

Step 3

Eliminate treat rewards entirely.

The time should come when it is never impressive that your puppy or child has done what is expected of them. Not many parents of ten year olds high-five their kid for using the restroom at the mall, and I never feel the need to treat my dog just for lying down when I tell him to, even if we’re at a busy Farmer’s Market and people are stepping right over him.

Only you can decide when this time has truly come. If you bring it about too soon, your puppy/toddler will regress and start making mistakes again.

You have to be honest with yourself – was this something that your puppy or child normally has difficulty with? Was this something that you should be a little impressed with?

If not, then there is no need for reward, other than a pat and a “good job”.

Because no one ever gets tired of hearing that.

My son still occasionally yells “Yay, MOMMY!” when I use the toilet, and while I don’t need that for motivation, it’s nice for one’s successes to be appreciated.

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