A problem that small dog owners will run into during training is how to balance the amount of treats we're using with our dog's low caloric requirements. I first realized this in a basic training class I took with Delilah. Most of the other dogs were larger labs, goldens, and doodles, and a handful of treats to them wasn't a big deal, but for my 6 lbs terrier, that was more calories than she got in a single meal, and less nutritious than her kibble. The problem was, I couldn't use her kibble in a high stress, distracting environment. She just wouldn't work for it. I came across this problem again and again, first in agility and then during behavior modification. I started looking into alternatives to the typical training treat.
Value: Low- Moderate
At home I use Delilah's kibble for training rather than feeding it to her as a meal. We do a lot of trick training and clicker training in the house with it. I also use it as a reward (and sometimes a distraction) for basic obedience and impulse control exercises- such as having her wait on her "place" while I fill up her puzzle toys with kibble. We also use it for mental stimulation games- her puzzle toys as I mentioned, hiding it in easter eggs around the house, tossing it around for her to chase and fine.
For dogs that are highly motivated by kibble, or for training in low distraction environments, it's really easy to just measure out how much food they eat every day and use it for training sessions instead of dumping it in a bowl.
Natural Balance Dog Food Rolls
My trainer suggested this food in particular to me. It's a semi moist roll of dog food that can be cut or crumbled into small pieces. It's very smelly and palatable, making it a high value treat for Delilah. But it's dry and safe to handle, unlike the raw food I use, so it's ideal for training in high distraction or stressful situations indoors, or when you just need to keep your hands clean. It's completely nutritionally balanced and can be fed on its own as a meal, so your dog isn't getting empty calories and it can replace a meal if needed. We specifically use it for counter conditioning in our house when we have guests over. Delilah is very fearful of strangers and doesn't like anyone in the house who isn't me or my boyfriend. We've had a lot of success using this food though. My boyfriend's friend came over- Delilah hates him- but she was so engaged with training that he even commented about how well she was behaving.
OC Raw Dog Food
I bought this on a whim at a local pet food store. I was looking for raw food nuggets, and these were on sale. Delilah LOVES them. These are raw food nuggets, meant to be fed as the primary part of a dog's diet, so again no empty calories. They've got great, wholesome ingredients- 90% meat, organ, and bone and 10% fruits and veggies. Simple, healthy, and tasty. Raw food in general is very high value for Delilah (and for most dogs). The only issue I've had with these as treats is that they thaw very quickly, and when they do, they turn from nuggets to meat mush. They get pretty messy. I still use them for training outdoors- specifically for counter conditioning and obedience on hikes. I'll even mix kibble in with them so when they melt they coat the kibble and I still have a solid piece of food to use as a treat. I would never use them indoors though!
Nature's Variety Instinct Raw
Value: Moderate- High
I use two products from this company. The Raw Boost Mixers are freeze dried nuggets that I feed dry as moderate value treats. They are clean to handle, and healthy, but are only meant to supplement a diet, so shouldn't regularly replace a meal.
Instinct Raw Bites are another nutritionally balanced frozen raw food I use for a high value reward. They have the benefit of retaining their nugget form as they thaw, rather than turning into ground mush like the OC Raw. I still only use them outdoors or in areas where a little bit of a mess isn't going to be a big deal like at our training facility. They also have a slightly different ratio than OC- 95% meat, organ, and bone and 5% fruits and veggies.
Value: Moderate- High
In addition to treats, I use play in training whenever I can to cut down on calories and also keep Delilah engaged and excited about training. It becomes a game to her. I use tugs and tennis balls for agility training, and a game of fetch can become a training session when I ask her to perform behaviors before throwing the toy.
What about you? How do you balance training with your pup's diet?