When we were first training our dog, Baxter, we did not use treats. I’ve gotten a few questions about this when I’ve mentioned this in past articles, so today I’m finally sharing our treatless training approach.

I think the main question that people have is, “How do you get him to do what you want without treats?”

Initially, this was my question as well. However, I quickly learned that treat training is not the only option when it comes to dog training.

Finding the right trainer

Before we adopted Baxter we started looking for a dog trainer. Even though we weren’t adopting a puppy (Bax was 3 when he joined our family), we knew we wanted to do a training class right away.

We weren’t sure how much training he would have when he came to our family and we also thought training would be a good way to build our bond. I visited various trainers and sat in on several classes—something I wholeheartedly recommend when you’re looking for a trainer.

One of the classes I attended was a pretty typical training set-up. Multiple dogs indoors in a large room. All of the owners and dogs were ranged around the perimeter with trainers in the middle calling out instructions or moving around helping people with their dogs. Every owner was giving commands and then handing out treats.

Baxter waiting to receive a treat from the Mighty Paw treat pouch

I came home and said to my husband, Matt, “We’re not going to be able to feed him on class day. The amount of treats the dogs ate in that class was insane!”

While treat training didn’t feel like a fit for us, I didn’t actively go looking for a trainer who didn’t use treats. But that’s what we ended up with.

Our trainer’s name is Carrie Rottaris, and she runs The Canine Bond in Hamilton, Ontario. Her approach is based on establishing a really strong, mutually beneficial relationship between humans and dogs.

Carrie taught us that our job as dog owners is to give our dogs stimulation and activity and boundaries and love. In return, our dogs will give us good behaviour and fun and love. Everything is based on a foundation of respect—humans’ respect for our dogs, and dogs’ respect for their humans.

This is the biggest lesson I learned in the training classes: training is a two-way street. We give to our dogs, and they give to us.

So let’s go back to that question from the start of “how do you get your dog to do what you want him to do?” Let’s also ask, “are you doing what your dog wants to do?”

By this I’m not meaning all the fetch, all the petting, all the walks, all the chasing. But think about your dog and his needs and make sure that you’re giving him what he needs.

“I want people to pay attention to their dog and learn from their dog,” said Carrie. “My approach is about educating owners about what their dogs need and what their dogs are saying. It’s about building a foundation of trust.”

How to train your dog without treats

Our training classes started in a local park, not indoors. There were six dogs, each with one or two humans, and the other people and activities of the park. While we were in a quiet part of the park, there were obviously lots of distractions.

“There’s a big difference between outside and inside and how your dog behaves, and that’s why I do my training outside in the real world in real situations that your dog encounters,” said Carrie.

We started with basic leash work.

We walked with our dogs, working to keep the leash loose. Then we stopped, and pulled up on the leash (slowly, gently, persistently) to put the dog in a sit. Then we walked again. Two steps forward, sit. Two steps backwards, sit. Sit and look around at the park—teaching patience, calmness and obedience. Don’t move your feet to put the dog in a sit. Make the dog come to you.

Then we looped the leashes around our waists (umbilical) and practiced walking. As soon as the leash started to get tight, we changed direction (watching that we didn’t turn and run into our dogs or get tangled in the leash).

Very quickly, our dogs learned to pay attention to us. We were erratic, unpredictable humans. They had to watch because we could stop at any second. We could start walking again in any direction. They had to sit when we asked them to. They had to wait and sit for a few seconds. They had to stay with us and not investigate every scent or sight.

We had to pay attention too to what our dogs were doing and adjust and react based on how they were behaving. Give umbilical a try sometime.

It’s harder than it sounds.

Lessons learned without using treats

The “normal” approach is to treat a dog every time he sits. However, the training approach that we followed with Baxter is about setting expectations.

“Rewards are a foreign concept for dogs,” explained Carrie. “I don’t reward my two year-old for letting me put her diaper on or putting on her shoes. There are certain expectations. Having that bond and relationship is reward enough.”

She described treat training as a human invention that is unrelated to dogs and how they communicate.

She cited mother dogs who don’t “bribe” their puppies with treats and says that instead training should be about bonding, leadership and respect.

Dogs sitting on a pedestal during training class

Leadership and respect tend to be loaded words in dog training these days, so I want to emphasize that our training experience was not about being alpha or dominant.

Carrie explained, “Dogs look for leaders. They want someone to set the rules. It’s not about being unfair or better than your dog. Leadership means our dog doesn’t pull us. Your relationship with your dog needs to be mutual. Maybe he’s pulling because I’m not giving him what he wants or needs. It’s a balance of respect and bonding. Give him what he needs too.”

Leash work and sits forced us to establish a foundation of respect right away. We had to be tenacious, persistent and consistent and earn our dogs’ respect.

As lessons progressed, we learned more about how to communicate with our dogs and what our dogs were saying by their reactions to us. Our bonds with our dogs grew as did our trust in each other—and as a result we progressed to more complex exercises. (Carrie’s goal was to set us up for off-leash hiking by the end of the classes.)

Training without treats involves a balance of stimulation and relaxation to meet our dog’s needs.

On the stimulation side, we challenged our dogs to focus on us, taught them confidence (classes included agility, encounters with water and visits to cities) and gave them a chance to problem solve (loose leash walking around trees and through bike racks resulted in tangles that needed to be unwound).

On the relaxation side, all of our classes included downtime. Opportunities for the dogs to wrestle and play with each other, a chance to sniff and investigate their surroundings, time for us to sit together and pet our dogs (Carrie taught us massage techniques to relax and bond with our dogs). Outside of class we also made time for walks and exercise along with practice.

The reward of training without treats

Training without treats is not without rewards. Giving respect back to the dogs—in stimulating experiences, a massage, freedom of an off-leash hike—is the reward.

For us, this training approach was also rewarding. I feel like I have a bond with my dog that I may not have achieved otherwise. I learned that training is about paying attention. We want our dogs to pay attention to us, but we also need to pay attention to our dogs.

When it comes to dog training, there are lots of philosophies on what is the best approach. Ultimately, the best approach is the one that works for you and your dog—the one that gives you the results you’re looking for and the one that you feel comfortable using.

Five tips for how to train your dog without treats

1. Spend some time not talking to your dog. You’ll start observing your dog differently and learning to speak dog. This also forces your dog to tune into you in a different way and pay closer attention to what you’re doing.

2. Leash work. Leash work. Leash work. Lead your dog and set boundaries. Change direction, change your pace, guide your dog over and around obstacles. Ask him to sit by gently pulling up on the leash. Put him on umbilical. Teach him not to pull. The leash is an excellent tool for establishing respect between you and your dog.

3. Sit is a basic tool to manage your dog. Ensuring your dog sits when asked is a key component of a respectful relationship.

4. Balance training with freedom. Our job as dog owners is to ensure our dogs are fulfilled. That means a mix of stimulation (exercise, training, work) and relaxation (free-time, playtime, petting).

5. Training is about you as well as your dog. Don’t think just about the behaviour you want your dog to give to you. Think about what you can give to your dog and how you can best meet his needs. This balance will create an incredible bond that will make for a very deep relationship between you and your dog.

What training methods have you used?

Have you ever tried to train your dog without treats?

Let us know in the comments!

Julia Thomson is a blogger at Home on 129 Acres where she writes about her adventures of country living and DIY renovating. She and her family live on a 129-acre farm in Ontario, Canada. Follow Julia on Instagram here.