How Do I Get My Dog to Listen Without Treats?

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train a dog without treats
One of the first questions my clients ask me when they realize that I train using treats is, “But how do I get my dog to listen without treats?”

It’s really common to run into this problem when you’re first learning how to properly train with treats. While it might be a sign of a smart dog when your dog will only listen if there are treats around, it’s certainly a frustrating scenario for owners.

In today’s “Ask a Behavior Consultant,” we tackle this question:

My dog is pretty well trained (sit, lay down, come, go to bed). The issue is that she will only do these things if she believes she will be getting a treat. She wants to see it in my hand before she does the command. Am I doing something wrong?

– Greedy Puppy

PS – If you want to submit your own Ask a Behavior Consultant question, you can do that here. Be sure to try all of the tips in this article and check out our training videos and blogs before submitting a question – we don’t answer duplicate questions.

How to Teach Your Dog to Listen Without Treats

It's almost always best to teach a dog a new behavior using treats ( I really like the Merrick Power Bites or Zuke's Training Treats). They're fast, they're small, and most dogs love them!

But once your dog is starting to really learn the behavior, it's important for most people to start weaning off treats.

Whether you need your dog to listen without treats for competition, for safety, or for convenience, it's handy to have a dog that listens without treats.

Here's how to do it.

  1. Start with treats. That's just the fastest and most efficient way to teach a behavior. Blue Bits from Blue Buffalo are great for small dogs - the heart-shaped treats break in half really easily!
  2. Fade treats ASAP. Many people start teaching their dogs using a lure. They teach a sit by pulling the treat up and back; they teach a down by curving the treat down and forward. It's important to remove the treat from your hand within 3-5 tries using the lure. Just use your hand to lure the dog, then produce the treat from your other hand.
  3. Make the reward a surprise. Sometimes, ask your dog to sit or lie down when there's no apparent treat in sight. Then produce a piece of chicken from a hiding spot! Or go outside and several tasty meal-toppers near your mailbox, then practice come when called and surprise your dog with a huge jackpot! Sometimes, I give my dog five treats for a behavior. Other times, he gets one (or none). Your dog will quickly learn that it's worth it to listen to you because you usually have something good, even if she can't see or smell it.
  4. Switch up the rewards. It's not always possible to have treats lying around. Though I try to have dog treats handy as much as I can, I'm not perfect at this either! Instead, I use life rewards whenever I can to reward my dog. Your dog can sit in order to earn a walk, lie down to earn belly rubs, or come when called in order to play tug o war. Teach your dog that if she listens when you ask, she'll get something good (but it might not be food).

It all comes down to motivation and trust. You need to demonstrate to your dog that it's a good bet to listen when you ask, because you almost always deliver.

Think of a friend who asks a lot of favors. If your friend almost always pays you back with a beer or a return favor (or at least plenty of gratitude), you're likely to keep the favors coming. But if your friend never acknowledges your favors, you probably won't keep showing up for her.

The same goes for your dog. There's a misconception that your dog should listen to you just because she's a dog, you're a human, and you are The Leader of the House.

The fact is, well-behaved dogs listen because something is in it for them.

I recommend teaching your dog that you'll provide good stuff when she listens rather than trying to enforce her obedience by threatening "listen, or else."

An Example of Fading Treats from a Dog's Training

Let's give this a concrete example, because it can be a bit hard to visualize how you fade treats and teach your dog to listen without treats.

Last week, I was teaching my dog to weave between my legs. This is a cute behavior that also helps stretch his back out - important before we go on long hikes!

Here's how it went:

  1. I lured Barley through my legs using a treat. Each time he took a few steps in the right direction, I released the treat from my fingers and gave it to him. I did this about 5 times until he seemed to have the motion down.
  2. I lured Barley through my legs but only gave him a treat when he finished the leg weave. I did this about 10 times, weaving him through my legs with the treat but only releasing the treat when he finished the weave.
  3. I put the treat in my other hand and then lured Barley through my legs using my empty hand. When he finished weaving, I gave him the treat from my other hand. We did this about 10 times.
    • We then took a break for a few hours.
  4. I repeated Step 3, but asked him to weave two or three times before he got a treat. We did this 10 times, varying whether Barley got the treat after one, two, or three successful leg weaves.
  5. I repeated Step 3 again, but this time I made my hand movements smaller each repetition. Rather than moving my hand through my legs right with Barley, I made the movements smaller and smaller. We did this about 10 times.
  6. I started adding a verbal cue. Now I moved my leg, offered my hand on the other side of my leg, and said "weave." If he got it right, I produced treats from my hand, treat pouch, or hidden around the house.
    • We took another break.
  7. I started asking Barley to "weave" at random times throughout the day. He "weaved" through my legs before I clipped his leash on, before I opened the front door, before I clipped his leash off at the beach, in order to earn a tug toy or a tennis ball, praise, petting, and for other real-life rewards.

That's how I taught Barley to leg weave without treats in just a few days.

Sure, I still give him treats about 50% of the time when he does the behavior (because I want him to love doing leg weaves), but he listens when I say "weave" even if he can't see the treats!

He trusts that I'll pay him somehow soon. We call this a trust bank account, and it's a hallmark of a great relationship with your dog.

So, it's not so much a matter of not rewarding your dog: it's teaching your dog that other rewards are possible, and that you'll usually pull through with something good!

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