I can’t admit enough how valid of a concern this is when training your dog with treats. Any dog trainer that would contradict the concern is perhaps misinformed, or holds the secret to effortless weight loss. In that case, I’d love to talk to them! Overall though, I don’t believe there is a trainer out there who would dispute the fact that 1) more food equals more calories and 2) additional calories - without additional exercise - equals more weight.
There you have it… The student is right. Guess they’d better not train their dog then. (Can you sense a wee bit of sarcasm?) Just because an imbalance of food-to-calories burned is in effect doesn’t relieve a dog owner of the responsibility of training their dog. Likewise, it shouldn’t offer justification to training their dog irresponsibly via unfruitful methods either.
And by the way, what about all of those skinny dogs that are not-so-well trained? By the “zero treats” method of training, it would stand to reason that all skinny dogs are well-behaved, which of course isn’t true. I also know a lot of heavy dogs that could use help with their basic manners still where clearly they have had plenty of treats in their life. On the extreme end of the spectrum, I often observe that obese dogs are deceivingly “well-behaved” according to their owners by the mere fact that they just can’t physically move much... a very saddening situation.
The point at hand is that I don’t believe the issue is a “Treat vs. No Treat” debate. Afterall, what is a treat but a small piece of food? And what is kibble but also a small piece of food? Like trainer Kathy Sdao alludes in her book Plenty In Life Is Free, why is that we are reluctant to give our dogs treats as rewards for good behavior throughout the day, yet happy to deliver a bowl full of food twice a day for doing absolutely nothing? Sounds rather backwards, right?
The key to unlocking this debate, like so many things in life, is achieved with balance. I’m not a trainer that will too often recommend hand-feeding a standard variety over-exuberant dog its kibble throughout the day, every day. Certainly, though, that would likely yield a better-behaved dog.
But who has the time for that?! Besides, I also feel that there is practical merit to the scheduled feeding ritual. You know exactly when your dog eats the majority of its food. Because of this, you can immediately gauge your dog’s appetite, and likewise, when their appetite is out of sorts (potentially indicating sickness or some other physical issue). You can also gauge your dog’s elimination habits more easily, helping to understand when your dog needs to be let outside. Trust me, your dog-sitters will thank you for it.
The key to striking the balance is to ensure that the caloric intake is balanced between training and meals. This Body Condition Chart from Purina.com will help to identify your dog’s body condition, and if he or she is too thin, too heavy or just right. If the dog is too heavy, back off on the amount of food that goes in the food bowl, or reduce the caloric intake of the treats, the food, or both.
It’s important to note that the type of treat being fed is also important. I like to use very small bits of plain, boiled chicken for training new behaviors or for training in new or highly-distractible environments, as well as some commercial treats like listed here. However, there are times when training doesn’t necessitate something as high-value, and pieces of kibble might be just fine for your dog. Either way, you want to ensure that whatever you are using as treats isn’t stuffed with a lot of fillers and empty calories.
Another thing to note is that if your dog is allergic to certain proteins or to certain grains, like corn or wheat, it’s important to ensure that your dog’s allergy triggers aren’t present in those treats. As a general rule, scrutinize dog treat labels for nutritional, caloric content and ingredient information just as you would your dog’s kibble bag or can of wet food - or even your own food.
So what if your dog is a little heavy and you’ve already adjusted your dog’s food intake but aren’t seeing any weight loss? A few scenarios immediately come to mind as to why your dog might not be able to lose weight:
- Dog is sometimes unsupervised and is sneaking food from counters, garbage cans and the back yard. Management here is key. Remove all access to food in unsupervised areas or be diligent about supervising your dog at all times.
- Dog is supervised but is being given extra food from family members, dog-loving biscuit-wielding neighbors and visitors to your home. Politely ask the offending parties to not feed your dog because he is on “a special diet.”
- Dog is still being fed too much at their scheduled feedings. Reduce the caloric intake.
- Dog receives little to no physical exercise. It’s time to get out for a walk!
- All or some combination of the above.
- None of the above. It’s time to consult your vet. Your dog might have a physical issue. In general, it’s a good idea to consult with your veterinarian anyway to identify how much food is too much, and also to determine an appropriate exercise regimen for your dog.
Instead, striking the balance between bowl feedings, training treats, an appropriate exercise regimen and proper veterinary care is most often the key to a happy, healthy, well-trained pup.