I recently started a new job, as the Canine Behavior Education Coordinator at Women’s Humane Society in Bensalem, PA. My role includes running training programs for the public and training and enrichment programs for the dogs in our care. Long story short: I absolutely LOVE it! One of the things I am finding is that my donated treat supply can’t keep up with demand! Here’s the thing: shelter dogs don’t love Milk Bones. A few years back, I’d have been like “Beggars can’t be choosers! You’ll eat those crunchy bone-shaped food items of countless too hard to name ingredients and you’ll love them, shelter dog!” But, the truth is, hard crunchy bones made primarily of grains cannot compete with lots of noises, smells and activity when you need a dog’s attention. And so, this has led me to a new level of creativity with Gross Things Dogs Love.
I’ve been making tuna fudge for a long time. I have gotten creative and made sardine fudge and salmon fudge and the loved- by -all combo fudge, but this weekend, thanks to the input of a friend, I’ve taken things to a new level and see almost endless possibilities!
Here’s the thing: this stuff is cheap to make. It’s soft and fudge-like, so easily breakable. A single batch goes very far. And, here’s the most important part: the flavors are novel so it really gets a dog’s attention! When we are training, particularly in distracting environments, novelty goes a long way. That goes for shelter dogs and pretty much for any dog. We need to trump the environment with our reinforcers if we want the dog to attend to us.
Here’s shelter dog, Winkey, in class. Her volunteer friend had treats on hand, but kept coming back for my “stinky stuff” because smell is one of the best ways to keep a dog in the game. Distracting environment? Pull out the big guns! My sardine-salmon fudge allowed Winkey to finish class successfully because she attended to her handler and not the 10,000 other things happening in the room!
Commercial treats are expensive. One of my initiatives is to build good in-kennel behaviors. I made these little buckets- a $9 project to get one on each adoption kennel (thank you, Dollar Tree!), and it’s been fantastic, but I need to keep them stocked. Right now, I am using a combination of donated treats and food that contains enough variety that the dogs are into it. Fudge isn’t really an option for this, as it will likely get mushy, but soft, stinky treats in a variety of flavors would be ideal. For now, I am using what I’ve got, adding enough stinky stuff to keep things interesting. Dogs are not as barky when people walk through and they wait with anticipatory wagging for some goodies to be tossed to them. My goal is to be able to have enough soft mini-treats like these on hand to keep the buckets full through adoption hours (a girl can dream….).
Cheap is another reason fudge is so great. A can of tuna can cost $2 to $4. Salmon is about the same, sardines, a bit less. This weekend, I used some canned dog food that was sitting around- a can of Merrick tripe and a can of bison/lamb. For fun, I added a banana to the tripe and canned pumpkin to the bison. So far, it’s a huge hit (N=2), I’ll get the shelter dog verdict tomorrow!
The basic recipe (for the staple tuna fudge) is super simple:
One large can tuna in water (don’t drain)
1 and a half cups flour (I like whole wheat, but you can use white or tapioca)
Mix together in a large bowl, bake at 300 degrees for 30 minutes. Lower temps seem to make for a more fudge-y fudge 🙂
For my variations, I did one can of wet tripe dog food and a banana with the same eggs and flour ratio. For the bison-pumpkin, I only used one egg, as the pumpkin served as a nice liquid-y binder.
I am going to do banana-pumpkin later this week to finish off the bananas, because in the even-more-good-news department, this stuff can be frozen! It may be a double batch and I’ll just adjust my ratios. You are looking for a loose, dough-like consistency when mixed. Not too loose, but not too dense, either. Very scientific, eh?
Hazel and Savannah are always my taste testers and Savannah was particularly bright-eyed for the tripe-banana fudge!
Hazel seemed more enamored of the bison-pumpkin, so to each her own, I guess! The finished product for each was a nice, easily cuttable sheet of fudge-like goodness. I have two methods of cutting that work well and I’ll use either depending on what’s clean! I really love my Avon mandolin slicer, also recommended by a friend, and it works much better for this than food roll, which I had previously been using a lot of. Food roll is great, it goes far, but it gets costly and cutting it can be time-consuming. This tool works great for fudge!
And there’s little to no mess, which for me is a HUGE plus, everything goes right into the bin! I also use a pizza cutter, as it slices through easily, though the chunks are less uniform in size. In the “beggars can’t be choosers” category, I literally use whichever is clean.
For overall ease of use and greatest utility, fudge as a training reward can’t be beat. Yes, your house may get a bit stinky, your hands a bit oily, but you’ll have dogs who are more willing to attend to you and continue training because you are making it worth their while. I’m looking forward to getting more creative (maybe those ignored cans of cat food will be out to use after all!) with training rewards that are economical and ever more tasty!