Sporting dogs are four-legged athletes, which means they need to eat the right things to help them power through their rigorous daily activities. Ensuring that your dog "eats right" starts with choosing high-quality foods that provide the correct balance in their diet.
This doesn't mean you can't give them treats, however. And while even older dogs will enjoy a tasty goodie, treats are especially important during training sessions with younger dogs when you're doing confidence-building drills and want to provide a worthwhile reward.
Treat Training & Food Drive
A good friend of mine, who is one of the best dog trainers in the country, gave me plenty of advice when I picked up my current dog, which is a Lab named Luna. The most poignant involved always setting the puppy up to succeed in whatever I asked of her and then to reward her profusely. Following his advice has certainly proven correct. Luna has been easy to train, and for a few pieces of dog food or the corner of a treat she has been willing to learn quickly. Labs, like other sporting breeds, have a high food drive. This means they are willing to do whatever it takes to get a reward that they can munch on. It's simple stuff, but it really can be the cornerstone of obedience training.
Ask any trainer worth his or her salt what the main problem is with hunting dogs and you'll almost always hear an answer that refers to obedience. Good dogs inherently know how to hunt, but they don't know how to sit or stay or heel. That's new territory, and as puppies they need to learn those commands and more. The easiest way to teach them is to work through simple drills and reward them.
With truly young puppies, say those dogs that are younger than four months old, treat training alone is a great way to go. They are only starting to bond with you at that point, and their attention span is so short that while they'll usually take some praising, they are more focused on exploring the world and eating whatever smells good.
As bird dogs get a bit older, the praise will become more important while the treats will become less of a necessity, but they should still play a role in training.
Training Teenage Bird Dogs
A good strategy for the awkward stage of dog-dom, where dogs are long-legged, long-eared, and just starting to grow into their adult bodies, is to back off the treat training for the easy drills. If your dog learns how to sit at eight weeks old, and demonstrates that they'll do it any time you ask, there is no need to give them a treat every time.
If you're starting to work on something new, like hand signals or double retrieves, then you might want to go back to the good stuff. New drills represent a chance for the dog to succeed or fail, and you don't want them to fail so do everything in your power to keep the experience positive from start to finish.
This will involve giving your dog a tasty reward like Merrick Backcountry treats. My dog loves these grain-free, protein-packed treats and I love feeding them to her, because they use real red meat, poultry, or fish as the first ingredient and don't contain anything that is imported from countries where they can toss in pretty much whatever they want.
They also represent the new wave of canine nutrition, where we have the chance to give our dogs not only what they want but also what they need to stay healthy.
Treats In The Field
It's common to ditch the treat training by the time a dog has had its first birthday, and definitely by its second. I don't disagree with that much on a daily training-drill level, but I do still throw some Great Plains Real Steak Patties in my jacket pocket during the first hunts of the season.
Usually this involves either dove hunting or early teal season, and my dog tends to be overly excited at the prospect of hunting again. This excitement can cloud all of the months of training in her head, so a little caloric reward can go along way toward reminding her that there are a few rules to follow.
In fact, I pretty much carry a few treats on every hunt, whether we're targeting pheasants, grouse, woodcock, or whatever. If Luna makes a great retrieve on a crippled ringneck, she gets a treat. At three, she still seems to appreciate this, but I really feel it was the rewards she received in her formative years that mattered the most.
If you're molding a young bird dog into something that will impress your hunting buddies, consider picking up some healthy treats that your dog will love and incorporate them into your training routine. Your dog will love it, and you'll appreciate your dog's willingness to please, which is win-win.