How To Train A Dog Without Treats Effectively

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Kimberly with Sally the dog on a leashLooking for an alternative to treat training? Our foolproof dog training without treats method will help you develop another way to foster a healthy relationship with your dog. We’ll teach you how to effectively train your dog to sit, stay, lay down, leave it and come without the use of a single snack.

Article Overview

My Experience With Treat Training

I tried to treat train my dog, Sally, when I first adopted her. I had always been told positive reinforcement is the way to train, which made me think treat training was my only option, but I was misinformed.

Some things worked with treat training and other things didn’t. For example, putting treats in her house (kennel) to convince her to go in so I could leave the house momentarily worked. However, using treats to keep her from barking at other dogs, fixating on squirrels or lunging at vehicles did not work no matter how proactive I was.

Sally is very food driven, but if there are outside forces (dogs, squirrels, bunnies, etc.), she’s going to be more interested in them than food. So we had to find a different way to obtain her attention without relying solely on treats. This caused us to seek a professional trainer’s help, and thus we were introduced to training without treats, which was extremely successful for us.

While I do believe in positive reinforcement training, I believe that reinforcement can come in the form of positive words and gestures towards my dog as much as dishing out treats. Trust me, Sally still gets plenty of treats, but when we’re focusing on training, I give her confirmation by giving her affection and saying “good girl.”

I also realize that every dog is different and while my Sally didn’t respond the best with treat training, other dogs may have other needs. If you’re looking to try training without treats, I’ve got some firsthand tips for you.

Why You Shouldn’t Lean On Treats For Training

Your dog should love you for more than just dispensing food to them. Leaning on treats to grow your relationship with your dog can prevent the relationship from reaching a deeper, more meaningful level.

I found that looking for alternative ways to connect with Sally outside of food, such as play, life rewards, and affection, deepened our relationship. I also found that thinking about Sally’s behavior and our quality of life more holistically, outside of simple obedience cues, helped me address some overwhelming issues that I wasn’t sure how to tackle at first, such as getting and keeping her attention in distracting situations.

I noticed that when I treat trained Sally, she seemed to be continually looking to please me (which was good) but, in truth, it was simply to obtain food. For us, shifting from treats to verbal praise allowed our relationship to leap to a new level. She was more affectionate and listened to my commands carefully.

While food treats may be the easiest way to train a dog, they might not work for every dog and every situation. Even dogs that aren’t food-motivated can be trained and here are some basic commands to help you work on your dog’s behaviors.

Using Leash Gestures With Your Commands

The way I learned how to train without treats was to use a collar and leash and depending on the way I tugged on the leash would help Sally know what to do. More specifically, I used a pinch collar on Sally, but I urge you to read the articles I’ve linked to and to conduct any other research before using this on your dog. It’s vital that you use a training collar you feel comfortable with and using it correctly.

Throughout this article, I will try to describe these gestures with the leash as well as hand gestures I used throughout Sally’s training. It’s important to be consistent with these things because eventually your dog will be off leash and you still want them to listen, right? So instead of relying on a leash, you can rely on a hand gesture as well as a voice command.

How Do I Establish Alpha Status?

The central theme my dog trainer taught me was that I needed to establish alpha status in my pack. Sally was running the show at home, which meant she didn’t have to listen to me unless bribed with food. She had free reign of the house and could be wherever she wanted except for on the beds.

To establish alpha status, you have to show your dog that you are in charge. This may be difficult to do (I know it was for me) because it feels like you are bossy and less affectionate. Ultimately, this helped us grow a stronger bond with each other.

To obtain alpha status in your pack, you’ll need to focus on all of these training aspects for a minimum of 2 weeks (could be longer depending on how consistent you are and how your dog is responding). Consistency is key. If you give in a little, it can set your dog back in the training process, so make sure you’re sticking to your guns.

Trust me, I know being consistent with all of this can be extremely difficult but I promise, it can be extremely rewarding and give you the most wonderful relationship with your dog.

Keep My Dog On Leash At All Times

This was probably the most tedious thing because it means you have to go outside with your dog for them to go potty, you have to take them to their water dish, etc. Your dog does nothing without you by their side. This sends the message to your dog that you are allowing them to go potty, drink water, eat food, rest on their dog bed, etc., which in turn helps you establish pack leader status.

Give My Dog A Job

To be the alpha in your dog’s eyes, you need to give them permission to do everything (in the beginning). They need to have a job and know what that job is. If you’re busy cooking dinner, they shouldn’t be sitting at your feet begging for scraps.

Instead, put them in a sit or down position and tell them to stay. If they get up, put them back in the position you had them in. Your dog is bound to get up because this is new to them. Be patient and know that this will take time.

This not only teaches your dog not to beg, but it also lets them know boundaries. This has been a tremendous asset in my house because Sally knows not to beg when company is over. Although she will try to push her dominance onto others still, I’m still working on this.

Why Should I Keep My Dog Off The Furniture?

The other main thing I had to do was keep Sally off the couch to reinforce my alpha status, which honestly stunk. I love snuggling up on the sectional with Sally, so this was hard on both of us. However, it was only for 2 weeks that we had to do this and we survived. Instead of letting her on the couch, I put her in a down-stay on the floor next to me or on her dog bed.

After the 2 weeks were up, she was allowed back on the couch. We started with always prompting her up on the couch by giving her permission. Now, we let Sally up on the couch as she pleases.

How Do I Teach My Dog To Go Potty  On Command?

Since you’re going to be visiting the outdoor facilities together often, you might as well work on the go potty command. If Sally and I are on a walk and I say “go potty” she will go potty on command. It’s absolutely insane in my mind, but it’s so nice on those days that are cold or rainy, and I can get her to relieve herself sooner than later.

When you go outside with your dog for a potty break, repeat the command “go potty” over and over. Choose a place in your yard that they usually relieve themselves and stand in that area and do not move your feet. Your dog will naturally circle you and smell the area until they hopefully do their business.

This won’t happen on the first attempt. You may need to walk around the yard repeating the command until your dog does its business. You’ll want to work your way to standing in one position and not moving your feet because this sends the signal to your dog that you chose this position for them to go potty in and what you say goes.

Once your dog has gone potty, it’s time to praise them (this is a fun part for both of you). Get down to your dog’s level and give them lots of love and affection and say “good potty” a couple of times. This helps them realize that they did exactly what you asked of them.

After you’ve praised your dog, go back inside immediately after. This shows them that you went outside to do a job and the job is complete, so now it’s time to go back inside.

Video: Dog Commands 101

Watch this short video to see how to teach your dog to sit, stay and come in action.

How Do I Teach My Dog To Sit, Stay & Lay Down?

The essential thing Sally learned in her training was the commands sit and down stay. The trainer had us work on sit-stays and down-stays for 30 minutes each day for a few days. Start your dog on-leash and have them sit-stay by tugging the leash towards their back to help put them in a sitting position and then telling them to stay. When you tell them to stay, hold your hand out in front of yourself towards them.

Keep them in this position for 30 minutes. If they get up, put them back in the position but do not repeat the sit command. This teaches your dog to listen to your command the first time. Feel free to repeat the command stay as often as you feel your dog needs.

During the 30-minutes, you can hold the leash in your hand or place it under a couch or something else around the house. Just make sure they are within eyesight so you can correct them if need be. After a few days, try to progress to doing this for 60-minutes. Again, be sure to correct them if they get up.

After a few days of this, progress to a down-stay for 30-minutes. To get your dog in a down-stay position, put them in a sit-stay, then bring the collar and leash connector to the front of the neck and guide your dog down. Some dogs can be very dominant, so this may be difficult to do at first. This was the case with Sally.

If your dog falls asleep during these 30-minutes that is a good sign because it means they are submitting to you and they feel comfortable sleeping because you are looking out for them. Finally, after a few days of this, you can progress to 60-minutes of down-stays.

Once your dog has done this, you can try leaving the room and see if they continue in their sit/down-stay position. Don’t leave the area for too long because you’ll need to make sure they are still where you left them.

How Do I Teach My Dog To Come To Me?

After your dog has a good grasp on sit and down-stay and they do a good job listening to you inside the house, it’s time to work on the command “come.” This should always be a happy and pleasant command. (Would you come to your parent if they were yelling at you?)

I suggest working on this in your backyard for 5-10 minutes with a standard length leash. Have the lead in your hand and put your dog in a sit-stay. Take a step away from your dog and continue to say “stay” as many times as you feel your dog needs until you reach the end of the leash.

Get down to your dog’s level in a squatting position and say, “[insert name] come” in a happy voice. For example, “Sally, come.” If your dog doesn’t come, give gentle tugs until they reach you and then give them lots of affection and say, “good come!”

Keep in mind that all of this needs to be a positive experience for the dog. Working on this will help your dog listen when you’re at the dog park or if they are in the front yard off leash and you want them to come inside. Remember to only say the command once, so your dog learns to listen the first time. After your dog has mastered a standard length leash distance, try a longer lead (around 15-20 feet).

How To Train My Dog To “Leave It”

The final command that has been extremely beneficial, in my experience, is “leave it.” Dropped a piece of raw chicken on the floor? “Leave it.” Changing baby’s diaper and the scent is intriguing to your dog? “Leave it.” Your dog may not catch on right away, so it’s okay to give a slight tug on your dog’s collar to pull them away from the object you want them to leave. After enough repetition, they will learn the command.

I use this command a lot when I’m snacking on something on the couch of I put a dirty plate on the coffee table. Sally likes to sniff around, and if I say “leave it” in a firm voice, she is generally pretty good at leaving it alone. However, we’re still working on this one, but she has come a long way!

Key Takeaways With Dog Training Without Treats

The most important thing to remember is consistency. As I said, this can be a difficult training process at first. It’s much different from treat training because you are building communication that asks them to work differently for your love and affection.

Remember, this isn’t how it will be forever. My dog trainer told me it takes 2 weeks to create a new habit for a dog. If you can do this for 2 weeks, I’m confident you’ll see positive results. And, if you find your dog only responds to treats, that is perfectly okay. It just did not work for me. If you need help training your dog with other things like whining, digging holes or other dog training subjects be sure to check out these articles.

Do you have a question about treat training vs training without treats? Or maybe you have some tips for other tricks?

Growing up, Kimberly used to get the sniffles when she was around dogs. Thankfully, she grew out of her allergy and is now able to play and snuggle with dogs as much as she wants! She and her husband adopted Sally, a four-year-old hound mix, in early 2017, and she has brought so much joy into their lives. Life as pet parents has been very rewarding.

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Taylor Anderson
My brother is thinking of adopting a dog, but he’s been wondering how to train them without treats. It was helpful when you said that giving a tight tug to the collar can help dogs learn to leave things alone. These tips could really help my brother out, so thank you for sharing this!
McKenzie
Fantastic article, thank you very much. I already follow a great deal of your advice, except I haven’t trained my hound to go potty on command. I never used treats for rewards on walks simply because he never responds to treats when there’s more interesting things to look at. Instead, like you, I use praise and he’s very intune with me on walks. Treats are for inside; I play games with him, alongside our cat, using treats! Anyway, I digress. I just want to thank you for writing a wonderful article and sharing such details that will help people. Well done and best wishes.
Tatiana Wilson
Thank you for mentioning that one of the good ways to train the dog is by taking them away and telling them to stay until they get used to it. My pet never listens to me, and to be honest, I am not that eager to teach him either. He’s a nice pet, and that’s enough for me. But I guess not for my hubby. Anyway, since we do not have enough time to lecture him anyway, I think we need to hire a pet trainer.
Caitlin
This article presents serious, potentially-damaging misinformation. The suggestion that using food treats to train undermines someone’s relationship with their dog is untrue and sanctimonious. If using treats is bribery, how is using toys, affection, playtime, etc any different? If that were true, it’d all be bribery on some level, and we would go back to beating dogs when they did the wrong thing rather than praising what they do right.
I applaud the author for finding creative ways to improve her dog’s life, but I am sure she could re-write this in a way that wouldn’t misinform and turn off novice dog owners. For example, she might say “I found that looking for other ways to connect with Sally, such as using play, life rewards, and affection in our day-to-day training, deepened our relationship. I also found that thinking about Sally’s behavior and our quality of life more holistically, outside of simple obedience cues, helped me address some overwhelming issues that I wasn’t sure how to tackle at first, such as getting and keeping her attention in distracting situations. While food treats are the easiest way to train a dog, they might not work for every dog and every situation. Even dogs that aren’t food-motivated can be trained.”
“When you call your dog’s name, they should come to you whether you have a treat in your hand or not” indicates a misunderstanding of how positive reinforcement works, whether you use treats or play or anything else. Sure they should, and dogs trained with positive reinforcement may come willingly, joyfully, and seemingly without being able to help themselves, but that’s got nothing to do with treats and everything to do with how they’re used. I know what the author was thinking – there’s a big chocolate lab in a sparkling suburban house that can’t walk on a leash, and the only time he receives any direction about what he should or should not be doing is when his attempts to assault visitors with his feet and kisses are interrupted with calls of “Bentley, cookie?!”
But heavens, if Bentley’s owners decide enough is enough, what if they read this article and think that despite the fact that a lab’s gluttony is the easiest way to improve his and their quality of life, they’d be chumps to use treats to train?
Readers, you can use treats to train and it doesn’t cheapen your relationship. Your dog loves you unconditionally, remember? It isn’t “bribery” any more than using toys, attention, etc. is bribery. I can’t tell you how many times I stepped on my puppy’s toes while he was learning to walk on a leash, and he still loves me. And even if it were, your dog (and you too) deserves the best quality of life you can give him, which means clear expectations and an enriching life, which requires good citizenship. If you have one of those dogs that isn’t food-motivated, you can still use positive reinforcement.
Michelle Schenker (Admin)
Hi Caitlin, Kimberly recently had a baby and thus, is not currently responding to comments, but I wanted to thank you. We read through your thoughts and agree with many of them. So, we made some minor updates to our content based on your feedback and agree that this makes for a much stronger and more encouraging article. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts so we could make our content even better for our readers.
Kyersten
Your dog is stressed….shaking off, licking and yawning….
Emery Jean Chambers
I found it interesting when you mentioned giving the dog a job and making sure that the person is patient with it because they will not totally obey in the beginning as the act is very difficult for them. If that is the case, I need to talk to my brother about working on his patience as he plans to train his pit bull, Peachie, to fetch the newspaper for him. Since he is not exactly very patient, it might be for the best that he hire a professional to be patient on Peachie for him.