Trick or Treat – Using Treats to Train a Dog

This exercise teaches a dog how to access the feelings necessary to create a calm and steady stay. It also teaches the dog not to grab food out of your hand. The object of this game is to teach a dog how to wait patiently with calm focus, but it’s also the first step to teaching the stay command. Don’t worry about telling him to sit or lie down first. And don’t say anything during the exercise except to praise Muttsy when you reward him.

Begin by feeding Muttsy a few treats. I like to use diced chicken or Muenster cheese. Give him two or three treats for ‘free.‘ This will give Muttsy the feeling that he can successfully get what he wants.

The next step is to stop feeding him treats, and instead present the treat to him, about an inch or so from his nose, then snap it away when he tries to grab it. Start this phase by showing Muttsy a treat, holding it between your thumb and first two fingers. Move it toward him, ending up about two inches from his nose. When he moves to grab it, snap it away, matching the movement of your hand with the movement of his head. Do this several times and you’ll notice that Muttsy will attempt different tactics to get the treat. He might try to jump up on you. He might paw at you with one leg. He might bark. He might spin around in circles. Ignore all these tactics. Instead, just keep presenting the treat and snapping it away when he tries to grab it. Be very patient and keep at it.

At some point, for just a fraction of a second, Muttsy will stop trying to grab the treat and sit perfectly still, trying to figure out what you want him to do. That’s when you give him the treat. Make sure to do this quickly, while he’s holding still. (This quiet moment will not last’not yet.) Also make sure to put the treat right into Muttsy’s mouth. Don’t let him take it from you. You have to give it to him. Now you can talk; praise Muttsy as you feed him. Repeat this process until you can see that Muttsy realizes that he only gets the treat when he waits, or pauses, momentarily. If you’re doing it right, and timing the treat just perfectly, at that exact moment he holds still for a fraction of a second, it should only take four repetitions for him to learn not to try to grab the treat.

That’s the good news. Here’s the not so good news. The next time you play the game, he’ll have forgotten the rules, so you’ll have to start over. This is because dogs are very context oriented. It’s not until you repeat the game in various locations, when he’s in various moods, etc., that he’ll be able to cross-contextualize what he’s learned.

So do this for three days, two minutes at a time. (You can do it four or five times a day, if you like, but keep each session as short as possible.) As the days progress, slowly increase the amount of time Muttsy can sit still, in five second increments, to about thirty seconds (or longer, if you can).

Next, start to notice any subtle indicators that Muttsy is holding still physically but not emotionally. Some of the usual indicators are a wagging tail, one paw that comes up off the floor slightly, ears that are pinned back, quiet whining, etc. Wait until the tail stops wagging, the paw comes down, the ears prick up, or the dog stops vocalizing, then immediately give him the treat. Soon the dog will not only be holding still physically, he’ll be holding still emotionally.

Once he’s holding still emotionally you can start using the word ‘stay.’

Begin by putting the leash on and holding it close to the collar (about two inches or so) with your left hand (or your right hand if you’re a lefty). Give the dog two free treats. Give two more. Give two more. Then on the seventh treat, pull it away when Muttsy tries to grab it. At the same time that you snap it away with your right hand, make an almost imperceptible leash correction, a subtle tightening of the leash, with the other hand and say, ‘Stay’‘, in a pleasant, inviting tone of voice.

When he obeys, give him the treat, praise him, and use your other hand to pet him under the ears. Continue to do this and the dog will start to feel that a soft tug on the collar means, he’s supposed to hold still. The tug and the soft, encouraging tone of the word stay will also create a calm focus.

Next add minor distractions as you play. Shift your weight from one foot to the other, move from side to side, crouch down. As these distractions cause Muttsy to lose focus, remind him with an encouraging, ‘Stay,’ and a little tightening of the leash, then give him the treat when he settles back down.

The last step is ‘dropsy.’ Start with two treats in one hand, hold the leash tight, show Muttsy one treat then drop it right in front of him. Before he can grab it, tighten the collar say, ‘Stay‘ in an encouraging tone, and immediately put the second treat under Muttsy’s nose, using it to guide or lure his head back to the original position, then give him the treat. Don’t let him eat the treat on the floor. Pick it up and add it to your pile.

Once Muttsy has mastered the emotions of this game, learning to stay becomes much easier, and he will be a happier and calmer dog overall!

About the Author:

Lee Charles Kelley,, is a successful New York dog trainer who uses methods that stimulate obedience through training games geared around a dog’s natural prey drive. Kelley is also the author of six dog mysteries for Avon, featuring ex-cop turned dog trainer Jack Field. All of his novels have dog training tips artfully woven into the storylines.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.