Electronic treat dispensers are tools for rewarding your dog. Consisting of a body section containing bite sized treats, and a separate remote control.
In this article experienced dog trainer Jo Laurens takes a look at what makes electronic treat dispensers so useful, how they could help you to train your dog and which electronic treat dispensers are the best option for you and your Labrador.
Electronic treat dispensing devices can open up new terrain for anyone wanting to train their Labrador.
Electronic treat dispensers reward dogs at a distance
You don’t need to be with your Labrador, at the moment you deliver the treat.
You can be standing some distance away, both when you mark and reinforce a behaviour. Behaviours that take place at a distance from you, are therefore much easier to train.
You’re not the source of the primary reinforcement (treats!) anymore, so your dog’s urge to return to you, is removed.
This is especially useful for training any targeting behaviour – where the dog has to head away from you and towards something in the environment – including send-aways; mat targeting; or even distance control or handling.
Electronic treat dispensers can reward independently
With the automatic reinforcement schedules available on some devices, you can also set the dispenser to give treats at intervals, all by itself.
This frees you up to do other things, whilst your Labrador continues being reinforced.
You might be providing some distractions for your dog – maybe proofing a stay, for example.
You might be training one dog, whilst you use the dispenser to reinforce another dog for waiting their turn.
You might be driving a car, whilst your dog is rewarded for not barking.
The applications here are endless and exciting.
There are a few different treat dispensers on the market at the moment, priced for different budgets. They all have slightly different functions and intended uses, so let’s take a look at three of them.
Trixie Memory Activity Dog Trainer
Trixie Memory Activity Dog Trainer is a really well-priced treat dispenser. The machine comes with the unit itself, plus a separate ‘button’ for the dog to press with either nose or paw. Pressing this button sounds a noise and automatically triggers the treat dispenser.
The goal being, to move the button progressively further away from the machine as the dog gains confidence.
Eventually, the button can be hidden in different rooms of the house, with the dog searching for it.
The button is accompanied by a suction cup to attach it to vertical surfaces, and a peg, to secure it outdoors.
However, thinking outside the box a bit, there’s no reason why the handler can’t hold the button and press it to release a treat from the dispenser – enabling the dispenser to be used in a similar way to other treat dispensers on the market: The handler marks and reinforces a desired behaviour.
This Trixie unit can’t be set to dispense treats at intervals, by itself. Each treat release, needs to be triggered by the button.
I haven’t experienced any jamming problems with the mechanism, but it is hard to control how many treats come out each time. This is determined by how wide you set the opening of the barrel which contains the treats. If you set the opening too wide, too many treats come out each time – and you may not get many reps before running out! If you set the opening too narrowly, it’s possible that none may come out when the button is pressed once.
Although you are supposed to hide the button in different rooms, thick or solid walls greatly impact on the range of the unit from the button.
This is a really great unit for the price, with basic functions and a simple mechanism which isn’t likely to malfunction.
PetSafe Treat and Train Remote Reward Dog Trainer
The PetSafe Treat and Train Remote Reward Dog Trainer unit was invented by the late (and brilliant) Sophia Yin and was originally called the ‘Treat & Train’.
The product was then sold for a while as the ‘Manners’ Minder’.
It’s now a PetSafe product.
I’ve expressed concerns elsewhere about PetSafe’s ethics as a company, since they also manufacture aversive products.
The Treat and Train has many more functions than the Trixie unit. Using the ‘Down Stay’ function (which need not be used just for ‘Down Stays’!), you can set the unit to dispense at regular intervals and choose the frequency.
You can also set a random reinforcement schedule, to switch things up a bit and keep the dog guessing when the next reinforcement is coming. After 1 minute, the Down Stay functions turns off – so you do need to be near at hand, to turn it on again – or reinforcement will stop.
The Down Stay feature is great for any sort of counter-conditioning, or any situation where you need to free your hands and your attention to do something else which you may need to condition your dog to enjoy – like grooming, driving a car, answering the door, training another dog – and so on.
The Treat and Train comes with a target stick in a weighted base and a separate remote, as well as the DVD and manual created by Sophia Yin. This is an excellent general training manual with particular emphasis on using the Treat and Train to teach your dog to lie on a mat quietly whilst you answer the door.
The remote can either manually trigger the unit, for each rep, or you can use it to start the Down Stay function with whatever settings you have set on the machine itself.
The Treat and Train is prone to jamming occasionally. It will then beep frustratingly at you and the dog, until you fix the problem! As with the Trixie unit, you can only put kibble or small, dry treats, in this machine. In high distraction situations, or for fussy dogs, these reinforcers may not be tasty enough for good results.
Finally, the range of the unit is nothing like the advertised 30.5m range. Even with no obstructions, the unit was struggling at half that distance when I was using it for ‘remote sit’ practice with my Labrador.
This limits some of the applications the unit could have, in many dog sports. If you buy the Treat and Train for distance work, be warned!
This unit is reasonably priced and has some great scheduling functions with the ‘Down Stay’ feature – making it very useful for counter-conditioning. It also has excellent supporting literature from Sophia Yin.
Smart Animal Training’s Pet Tutor
The Smart Animal Training’s Pet Tutor is an incredibly exciting piece of kit which really takes force-free remote training into new territory.
The Pet Tutor is an extremely well-made device which is robust and almost never jams.
It comes with a remote and either a stainless steel crate mount, or a floor base. (If you want both, you can purchase separately.)
The Pet Tutor also has an app for iPhone and Android, so your phone can be used in place of the remote.
This app enables multiple units to be triggered at different moments, or simultaneously – or programmed with different reinforcement schedules for different dogs.
Multiple dogs can therefore be trained simultaneously and there are many videos on the Pet Tutor website showing rows of crated or kennelled dogs, calm and content with their Pet Tutors rewarding them!
The Pet Tutor also comes with computer software which can be used to re-programme the units – enabling you to have full control over reinforcement schedules, including automatically calculating an increase in duration over a period of time.
The unit can be programmed to feed automatically at set times, on a daily basis – useful for feeding animals left alone at home, whilst owners are at work.
Unlike other treat dispensers, the Pet Tutor can be used off the floor. For example, it can be placed on a table, counter or shelf – shooting the treats out, for the waiting dog beneath. It has a handle so it can be hung high up. For use in car cages or crates, the Pet Tutor’s crate mount fits the unit to the outside of the cage – so the dog can’t access the unit itself. This also helps the dog to associate being confined, with reinforcement.
Most labradors are very enthusiastic about their food, and other treat dispensers can get damaged, mugged and raided in impatience – leaving you reluctant to leave your labrador home alone with this expensive piece of kit. The Pet Tutor gets around all of this.
Pet Tutor can be used in any situation involving unwanted barking. The remote can be attached to a dog’s collar, and can detect barking. When the dog is silent, it waits a few seconds and then triggers the unit – rewarding the dog for silence.
Unlike the Treat and Train, the Pet Tutor can continue to dispense beyond 1 minute and is therefore even more useful for counter-conditioning and behavioural issues – it can be used in your absence.
The Pet Tutor can be filled with tasty treats, including a trail mix of kibble and moist foods like frankfurters and cheese. It can adjust to different-sized treats, without jamming. This enables training around distractions to be more successful.
Clearly, the Pet Tutor is streets, roads and highways ahead of the competition in terms of functions and design. But it does have two drawbacks: It’s not yet available outside of North America. And it has a hefty price tag for an entry-level unit.
Before remortgaging the house, it might be worth checking if you really need the extra functions the Pet Tutor gives you – or whether a more reasonably priced treat dispenser could meet your needs.