Learning to Live Happily Ever After

Take the Thousand Treat Challenge!

Posted by on Feb 3, 2013 in Dog Training | 28 comments

Last week I took delivery of 32 pounds of dog treats.  Thirty-two pounds!  Imagine the possibilities!


Just in case anyone is doing the math on my 32 pounds, there is one four pound roll already in use!

As I lugged them all out to the garage, I was suddenly struck with the fear of, “What if at the end of these 32 pounds my dog is no more proficient in training skills than he is today?”  That’s because I tend to be somewhat aimless in my training at times:

Even though it is VERY cute, maybe my puppy didn't need quite SO many treats just for tilting his head so endearingly...

Even though it is VERY cute, maybe my puppy didn’t need quite SO many treats just for tilting his head so endearingly…


Many of the people who attend my Dogs and Babies classes have the opposite situation.  For whatever reason, people come in thinking that it’s somehow “cheating” to use food in training or they have been taught ineffective techniques for food reinforcers and are, understandably, not enamored of the results.


The Thousand Treat Challenge

Then it hit me – I can solve both problems with one low commitment game.  If you already give your dog treats freely, the Thousand Treat Challenge will add more precision to your training.  If you are new or even a little opposed to giving treats, it won’t hurt to give it a limited try.  After all, you do feed your dog, don’t you?  You may as well come away with your dog better trained for those calories he was just going to eat out of a bowl.

  1. Choose a behavior or skill you want your dog to perform better/differently
  2. Set aside 1,000 treats (see below)
  3. Over the course of two weeks, spend your 1,000 treats to practice and reinforce progress


What Does 1,000 Treats Look Like?

My combination below of home-dried hot dogs, freeze-dried liver treats and Natural Balance Roll-a-Rounds took up less than one sandwich bag and weighed 8 ounces.  The trick, of course, is that effective treat reinforcers are very small and highly delicious (to dogs).  Dog trainers know this but pet owners are stuck trying to make it work with a bag of dry biscuits.

Choose a variety of palatable treats and cut/break up your 1,000 pieces.  Mine had to be dry and relatively non-perishable because I’m bringing them to class next week, but you can feel free to chop up bits of leftover meat from dinner or cheese or the trainer’s standby – rolls of Natural Balance or Red Barn as pictured above.  Set aside in a designated container or bag to draw from throughout the course of the challenge.



1,000 treats – ready to go!!


Make a Plan

Don’t let this step slow you down!  The Thousand Treat Challenge is all about doing!  Pick anything!  Here are some ideas:

  • Reinforce the behavior of looking at you
  • Teach Down to a snazzy hand signal or a whisper
  • Practice standing around people (not jumping!)
  • Improve elements of leash walking
  • Reinforce coming when called
  • Help your dog be comfortable with touch – maybe even work on nail clipping!

Don’t know how to train these behaviors?  Someday, I will finish writing/videoing these and other easy-to-improve-with-very-little-effort behaviors.  In the meantime, check out Emily Larlham’s wonderful set of YouTube videos for tons of quick ideas and step-by-step instructions.  Really, just close your eyes and pick one and you’ll do fine!

If you want to make a written plan, allocate the number of treats you want to “spend” on each aspect of the behavior.  This will help you keep on track and monitor progress.  Write down:

  1. Here’s what my dog does now
  2. Here’s what I’d like it to look like instead
  3. List a few aspects you can work on and how many treats for each
  4. Measure progress

For example, a dog that sits well in the kitchen might benefit from practicing 50 times in each other room (not all at once, of course – remember, you have two weeks for the challenge).  If you notice the dog only sits when you inadvertently “announce” training time by being too obvious with the food in your hand, you can decide, “I am going to spend 200 treats practicing with empty hands,” and so forth until you have the behavior you want.  One thousand treats give you lots of chances to provide clear information to your dog!


Take the Challenge!

I have a one year old Flat-Coated Retriever who likes to eat all kinds of junk.  I am going to start with teaching him to prefer looking at me over dive-bombing for dropped food.


What will YOU do with your 1,000 treats?


One day my puppy will be as good at this as my old dog was!

One day my puppy will be as good at this as my old dog was!





Join the conversation and post a comment.

  1. Eileen Anderson

    Oh Madeline, what a great idea! It made me smile when you said you were somewhat aimless in your training. Hard for me to believe! But I sure wear that hat. I haven’t decided yet what to do with my 1,000 treats but I’m in and I’ll post my before, during, and after. This will be a great motivators for me. Thanks!

    • Madeline Gabriel

      Great idea, Eileen, to record the before, during and after! I’ll have to do that, too. I think we’ll get a lot accomplished with 1,000 treats to spend “on purpose.” I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with!

  2. Chris Dignan

    Love this! instead of doing the challenge with treats…have you thought about doing it with JUST their kibble or daily diet? Either way it is a good exercise for both person and pup but you could save the treats for activities that require a bit more motivation (reinforcer) for the pup:)

    • Madeline Gabriel

      Thanks for the idea, Chris. People can certainly use whatever they think their dog will enjoy in the “trail mix.” I don’t usually go for using all the food for training because I like to give dogs the consistency of being able to rely on getting fed. Depending on the kibble size, one thousand pieces might end up a lot more than the small treats so it’s something to experiment with. Anything that gets people to look for good behaviors in their dogs and be ready to reinforce it is a big help!

  3. Katherine Ostiguy, KPA CTP

    Great idea and great post! With four dogs I long ago surpassed the 1,000-treat-per-week mark (not to mention the toy play I use as a reward, too) but this is an excellent concept for my students & I’m sharing this with them. Good luck with your self-control training – your pup is super cute!

    • Madeline Gabriel

      I know, Katherine! It’s easy to go through tons of treats when dogs are doing good things all the time, isn’t it? That’s why I wanted to give myself a little more precision by saying that THESE one thousand treats were going to be spent on something specific. I can still give aimless treats or treats to maintain other behaviors, but I won’t pull from the same stash. Let me know how your students take to the idea. It’s something I’m trying out for my Dogs and Babies book to help make training a little more accessible to people.

  4. Karen

    My dog LOVES hot dogs. How do you dry them? How long do they store?
    Thanks, Karen

    • Madeline Gabriel

      Hi Karen – I cut them lengthwise and then into maybe nickel width and spread on a foil-lined baking sheet and cook at 200-250 degrees for about two hours. You can also just leave them in after shutting off the oven for some extra drying. I check them partway through to look for most of the moisture to be gone but not too shriveled up and burnt. Then, I snap them in half for a small size treat for fast training sessions. The consistency should be kind of like a cracker but not quite that dry. I think they last at least a week b/c they are very dry. You can refrig or freeze, too, I imagine but they will probably pick up some moisture.

      • Jody Ambrose

        You can also microwave the hot dog pieces between paper towels for 5-10 minutes (depending on thickness), as long as you don’t mind your microwave (and your house) smelling like bacon for several days.

  5. robin sallie

    Thanks for the challenge. I started today with sit and make eye contact in the dinningroom. 1000 treats is about 70 per day over the 14 days.

    • Madeline Gabriel

      Sounds great — especially the starting TODAY part! 70 tiny treats go by in a flash in quick training sessions. I’m aiming for 100 per day, knowing that I’m going to end up missing a few days here and there. Don’t you love how the slacking off is built right into the two week schedule? :-)

  6. Deb M

    I’m going to cut up 1000 bits and teach Draper to place his head in his own collar. This will hopefully help him with his harness aversion.

    Ok then, off to the store to buy healthy and not so healthy foods for treats! Great idea Madeline.

  7. Erin

    I LOVE THIS IDEA!!! Now to decide what of our many things to work on shall we tackle :)

  8. Sharon Wachsler

    We’re on it: http://aftergadget.wordpress.com/2013/02/06/1000-treats-for-default-zen/

    Thank you for the idea! Lots of progress today (about 100 treats in).

    Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best solutions for the problem that has been confounding me for months!

  9. Effie

    Fantastic idea. Do you think it will work if you just treat for good behaviour? My parents have a 1 year old Rottweiller who is getting a bit out of control and I am afraid he is getting more negative than positive attention. I thought if they can look out for any good behaviour and treat that, maybe it would help calm/focus the dog.

  10. Jennifer Z

    I’m in! I also have a 7 1/2 month old puppy who dives on things and gobbles them up, so I am choosing an ‘off’ or leave it’ as my challenge.

  11. Elizabeth

    Got here from Eileen’s blog…love this idea. We are going to tackle Level 3 Lazy Leash with our treats! http://markitdogtraining.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-1000-treat-challenge.html

  12. Eileen Anderson

    We are still at it! Clara is relaxing more and more. We’re about at the halfway point with our treats. http://eileenanddogs.com/2013/02/26/clara-relax-halfway/

  13. jan wherley

    Wanted just to add – about those who’s dogs snaffoos treats which are dropped. Another idea for shaping that is Susan Garrett’s IYC or It’s Your Choice. This is a very VERY lazy training idea, which I love because it requires little, to NO effort on your part.

    Offer the treats, in your hand, if the dog goes for them, cover them up. No treats, until the second the dog backs off, give a treat from that stash. Cotinue. Eventually, you can ask for more, backing off the treats, and eye contact… or target, whatever you want.

    I am going to love the 100 treat challenge, but must multiply it by 3, for three dogs. Thx, jan

  14. Sheena

    We started on Saturday and am blogging about it.
    So far it’s been quite interesting! http://www.keystonetraining.ca/blog

    We’ve been working on loose leash walking, nail trims, meeting dogs on walks, and adding new tricks.

    Thank you for such a great idea!!!


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