Dogs Only Listen When They Know You Have a Treat

Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB
By Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB on Jul. 4, 2012

The other day Maverick was working with one of my patients. Maverick’s job was to stand relatively still and look at me. It sounds like a simple task, but remember that Maverick is only seven months old and I had only had him for three weeks at that point. Have you ever tried to keep your dog’s attention on you while other things were happening around you? It’s not easy as you think!

As I was looking down at Maverick and he was looking up at me, I saw his eyes shift to my back where my treat bag was hanging around my waist. That was a red flag for me. Maverick was associating the presence of my treat bag with the possibility of reward. If he learns that when those cues are not present there is no chance of reward, he will begin to perform the requested behaviors only when he sees those environmental cues.

This type of association commonly leads to the owner complaint that their pups only listen when they have a treat. Owners inadvertently teach their puppies to listen only when they have something in their hand (i.e., a treat), are standing near the treat jar, or are wearing a treat bag.

Pups are excellent at reading their environment. If each time you train you use treats, wear a treat bag, or stand near the treat jar, your pup will learn that he only has the opportunity to get treats when you give that additional signal.

You have probably experienced this in your own life when you asked your pup to sit and he didn’t. Not knowing what to do, you went to the treat jar, got a treat, and then asked him to sit again. Lo and behold, he sat! Then, you handed him the treat. With that interaction, you trained your dog to only sit when you have gone to the treat jar first. Not a good lesson to learn. Now you will be one of those owners who moans and complains that their dog only sits when they have a treat in their hand. But it won’t be the dog’s fault or the fault of reward based training. You know whose fault it is.

In order to get your pup to work with you when he doesn’t see a treat, you need to make sure that he does not consistently link any particular environmental stimuli with the probability of a reward.

Linking Rewards Other than Food to Positive Behaviors

For example, you have your dog sit for every interaction, not just the ones that earn treats.

Disassociate Your Treat Bag From the Act of Getting Treats

Put snack bags or plastic containers of treats all around the house. Then, use a conditioned reinforcer such as a clicker or a phrase like "Let’s get a treat" to signal to your dog that he was correct and a treat is coming

Practice Your Pup’s Training Throughout the Day, Not Just at Training Time

For example, as you are moving through the house, ask your dog to sit. Then, race to the treat jar. You can practice this kind of exercise with your dog anywhere. If you are in the yard gardening, you can put your treat jar up near your front door. Make it clear that there are no treats on you. When your dog is busy engaged with a smell in the grass, call him to you. When he comes to you go wild with praise, say "Let’s get a treat!" and race as fast as you can back to that treat jar and reward him. Soon, he will be responding to you all of the time and not just when you have your training bag hanging around your waist.

Dr. Lisa Radosta

Image: Waiting for a treat by Anatema / via Shutterstock

Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB


Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB


Dr. Radosta is a board certified veterinary behaviorist and owner of Florida Veterinary Behavior Service since 2006.  She is a well known...

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