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How to Train Your Small Dog With Treats Without Spoiling Their Appetite

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Training smaller breeds can get out of hand quick when yummy treats are involved.

Training smaller breeds can get out of hand quick when yummy treats are involved.

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.

Calories count when it comes to dog training!

Calories count when it comes to dog training!

8 Ways to Train Your Small Dog Without Ruining His Appetite

Below 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% rule. Look for treats 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 per day. With that in mind, considering the 10% rule, she would need to not go over 20 calories from treats.

At 4 calories per treat, she could get up to 5 treats a day (5x4=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% 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 and 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

If you have used up your dog's daily allotted quantity of treats, but would like to train more or capture more desired behaviors, you can keep on rewarding, but this time using 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!

6) The Power of Contrafreeloading

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.

7) Switch to a Yummier Food

Finally, another option to to swap your dog to a dog food that your small dog loves so much it can be used for training.

One favorite option is Fresh Pet's Food Rolls, made for small dogs which are often sold in the refrigerated pet food aisles in stores like Target, Acme Markets, Walmarts etc. This food is complete and balanced and made in the USA.

I have used these for training picky dogs without worrying about extra calories since this is already a dog food itself. It can be sliced and cut into small pieces or it can be used to stuff a Kong or other puzzle toys or hollow bones.

If you want it to be softer, it can also be microwaved before inserting into a toy and you can freeze it too for a longer lasting food puzzle.

8) Try a Lickety Stick

The Lickety Stick is an innovative way to reinforce desired behaviors. It's sort of a lollipop, but in liquid form. Your dog licks directly from the bottle so your hands don't get dirty.

I like to use the Lickety stick for some nippy dogs since it encourages licking more than nipping, but one of its biggest advantages is the fact that it is also low calorie with only 1 calorie in every 10 licks. Every bottle is capable of deliver 500 licks.

Lickety stick comes in several tantalizing flavors such as Smoky Bacon, Braised Liver, Savory Chicken, Big Beef, Sharp Cheese, and Peanut Butter.

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

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


Sp Greaney from Ireland on May 07, 2021:

I definitely think treats can help persuade dogs to do things. The idea of using their kibble or dividing the treat up into lots of tiny bite size pieces is a very smart idea. Good way to control their calorie intake.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on May 06, 2021:

alexadry Small dogs are cute but a challenge and if one is not able to cope with training., it can be a problem. Eating habits change and some do not understand it. However, you have a well-written hub on this issue and it is most useful indeed!

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 06, 2021:

Your suggestion about swapping out their regular food is sneaky but it works. When my grandmother was alive, she had a limited income and her cats and dogs ate too many treats (sorry, there wasn't much animal training in that house). Rather than eliminate treats when her budget wouldn't allow her to continue feeding them, we substituted the animals' regular kibble and they didn't notice. Pretty brilliant and cost-saving.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on May 05, 2021:

You explained the need to understand the calorie intake for small dogs very well. Most of the dogs I have had have been big and I didn't worry too much about calories. I just made sure I had good quality food, and I didn't overfeed them. Thank you for another important article about dogs, Adrienne.