Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
Training small dogs with treats without spoiling their appetite can feel like a big challenge. Perhaps you have enrolled your small dog in training classes, and he gets filled up quickly, refusing any further treats, while larger dogs keep going and going.
Or maybe you want to work on rewarding desired behaviors but after a short behavior modification session, your small dog refuses to eat his meals because his appetite has spoiled.
Or maybe he does still eat his meals, but you are concerned about your small dog becoming overweight and unhealthy due to the additional treats.
What can you do in such cases? You certainly may feel stuck between a rock and a hard place considering that you so badly would like to train your small dog, but you feel discouraged.
The Importance of Counting Calories
A dog’s typical diet mainly comprises dog food, but one must also keep into account treats, table food, dietary supplements, chews and any additional foods used to administer medications.
Despite all these foods, it’s important that your dog’s food remains the main source of calories. This is something that is critical to a dog’s health because your dog’s food is the main source of carbs, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients.
Of course, this applies to dog food that is well-balanced and nutritionally complete. Treats, on the other hand, are more like junk food. They are specifically crafted to entice your dog and make him motivated for training.
It goes without saying that if you eat a bag of potato chips and ice cream around lunchtime, you will feel less tempted to eat your lunch because you’ll feel too full.
So when it comes to giving treats to your dog, make sure that they comprise no more than 10 percent of your pet’s total daily calorie needs, points out board-certified veterinary nutritionist Dr. Lisa M. Freeman.
The Benefit of Using Treats for Training
Here’s one important consideration: treats play an essential role in reward-based training and behavior modification. Positive reinforcement training indeed has been found to be the best dog training method according to studies.
To reap the benefits of reward-based methods, you will therefore have to find a way to balance the administration of treats doled out during your training session with your dog’s daily intake of calories.
Fortunately, there are several strategies you can use to get around this problem, and it may take some experimenting, however, as the saying goes, when there is a will, there is a way.
So don’t give up training your small dog, just keep trying until you can find the right balance between keeping your dog motivated (without getting him disinterested) and not ruining his appetite.
5 Ways to Train Your Small Dog Without Ruining His Appetite
Following are some tips on training a small dog using treats, but without ruining his appetite. As the saying goes, everything in moderation.
If you are unsure how many treats you should feed your small dog, please see your vet for an individualized calculation based on your dog’s weight and daily calorie consumption.
1) Split Them into Small Pieces
Many dog owners are often surprised when they see how small I can break up the pieces of a regular-sized treat. I often can get as many as 10 to 20 smaller pieces, and each piece can be used to reinforce one desired behavior. This means that with just one treat I can reinforce as many as 10 to 20 behaviors!
So if your dog is small and you have found treats your dog loves, consult with your vet and ask about how many treats your dog can eat a day based on your dog’s weight and the treats’ caloric count.
Then, once you have the ideal number, split those into small pieces and arrange your training session around that. You can then divide them into groups based on how many times you can train your dog a day, strategically ending the session when you have finished the allotted amount of treats.
2) Look for Low-Calorie Options
The fewer calories a treat has, the more you can provide without surpassing Dr. Freeman’s 10 percent rule. Look for treats therefore that are advertised as being very low calorie.
For instance, Bixbi Pocket Trainers provide less than 4 calories per treat. I have used these for training dogs, especially when clients are concerned about their dogs filling up and where every calorie counts.
For example, last time I had a small Yorkie mix that weighed a little less than 7 pounds. Her vet assumed that her caloric requirements were probably around 200 calories/day. With that in mind, considering the 10 percent rule, she would therefore need to not go over 20 calories from treats.
At 4 calories per treat, she could get up to 5 treats a day (5×4=20). While 5 treats a day may seem like very little, once you break them up into 4 pieces each, that leads to 20 treats that can be used to reinforce 20 desirable behaviors!
There are many other low-calorie options on the market nowadays, like Plato Small Bites Salmon and Zuke’s Mini Naturals (one of my favorites) which contain just a mere 2 calories per treat!
3) Use Dog Friendly Fruits and Veggies
Many dog owners use fruits and veggies for training their dogs. This is a good option considering that these healthy human foods have low calories which helps dog owners ensure their dogs don’t eat more than 10 percent of the daily calories.
Board-certified veterinary nutritionist Dr. Deborah E. Linder lists several low-calorie options for dogs on Petfoodology by Cummings Veterinary Medical Center
at Tufts University.
Among the lowest calorie options for small dogs are blueberries with 1/4 cup or about 25 berries offering just 20 calories and 1 baby carrot offering just 5 calories.
A whole cup of green beans cut into 1/2 inch pieces or a 1/4 cup of green peas offers 30 calories instead.
Please don’t just feed any fruit or veggie you come across without ensuring first that they’re not toxic to your dog. For instance, consider that grapes, raisins, nuts, onions and garlic can be harmful and some of them even toxic to dogs.
4) Train With Cheerios
Cheerios are a favorite low-calorie food that can be used to train dogs. They offer the advantage of taking on the smell/taste of treats pretty well, so you can mix them in with other treats to make them more appetizing.
5) Use Your Dog’s Kibble
Have you ever counted how many pieces of kibble are in your dog’s daily meals? Those are many lost opportunities for training!
If your dog loves eating his kibble, and you can get your dog to think that kibble is as good as treats, then you’ll easily have plenty of training opportunities without having to depend on higher-calorie treats.
Here’s the thing: you can persuade your dog into loving to eat kibble by simply making him earn it. The scientific term is “contrafreeloading.“
This term was coined by animal psychologist Glen Jensen in 1963 who described the phenomenon of animals who come to prefer eating food that requires some effort to obtain versus food offered freely.
To put this in practice, simply measure the recommended daily ratio of kibble you should feed and place it into a treat pouch and feed it throughout the day.
If you happen to have any leftovers, you can serve this extra kibble in your dog’s bowl, Kong Wobbler or you can organize a fun treasure hunt game.
To prevent your dog’s stomach from building too much acid, it may help to do a small meal in the morning and one in the evening, and then use the rest as training treats. Consult with your vet if your dog has a health condition (like tummy troubles or low blood glucose) for guidelines.
Since dogs and cats should have no more than 10% of their daily calories come from treats or snacks outside their main diet, vegetables and fruits can be a great way to provide low calorie and healthy options for your pet.
— Deborah E. Linder, DVM, MS, DACVN
A Tip for Using Treats on Walks for Behavior Modification
Some dog owners struggle with small dogs who are reactive on walks and they want to work on creating positive associations (such as in LAT look at that exercises) but are afraid of using too many treats.
In such a case, if your small dogs can only have 10 treats, make the best you can of them. So try to walk in quiet areas and plan to meet only up to 10 triggers.
Use the emergency u-turn if you think another dog is too close or if you are meeting extra triggers that came unexpected and plan on organizing a part of the walk mainly concentrating on creating positive associations/reinforcing desired behaviors.
If your dog is very toy-driven, you can also intermittently provide a toy to carry, catch or play tug with so as to reinforce desired behaviors.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2021 Adrienne Farricelli