One of the questions I get asked the most by clients is "When can I stop giving my dog treats?". Short answer? Never.
We tend to have a very solid idea in our heads that our dogs should do things for us "just because". Because they respect us, because we are "in charge". In reality those kinds of things just don't matter to our dogs.
Dog's do things because they are reinforcing. They provide the dog with something, or access to something, that they want or need. Some of the things our dogs do are self-rewarding. Digging, barking, and chewing are just a few examples of things our dogs do that they find enjoyable. They are difficult behaviors to get rid of because they never don't work. On the other side of it, most of the things we want our dogs to do are not at all rewarding for them. They are typically the opposite of what our dogs want to do. This is where rewards like food become our best friends.
We can make our lives with our dogs easier by making sure the the behaviors we like are rewarding. Food is one of the easiest ways to do this. Everybody has to eat! We can also use things like attention, toys, and access to freedom. Food is typically the fastest and easiest reinforcer, so it is the one we often fall back on.
The more our dog finds a behavior reinforcing, the more often they are likely to do it. The easiest way to capitalize on this is to treat your dog for doing things you like! One of our favorite leaders in the world of dog training, Kathy Sdao, outlines an amazing program for this in her book Plenty In Life is Free. She calls the program SMART x 50. Here is a great article outlining the program for you. We are big fans of this program.
Traditionally in Positive Reinforcement training the goal is to wean off the treats. You practice and train a behavior to build a reward history. Once you have a reward history, you start to move to a variable reinforcement schedule. This means that you only reward certain responses. You start to pick and choose the responses that are particularly fast or precise. Then, you slowly fade out the treats entirely. Personally, I do not tend to go this route. I don't always reward every response with a treat for the rest of my dogs life, but I don't ever stop treating them all together. It would be similar to you going into work tomorrow and sitting down with your boss to find out that they think you are doing such a good job that they are ready to stop paying you. But you are still expected to perform your job at your current level.
So when can you stop giving your dog treats? Honestly, whenever you want. However, if you want consistent, solid, reliable behavior from your dog it's going to take time before you can fade them out. On top of that, you don't have to ever get rid of them! Give your dog a treat for the sit, for the stay, for walking nicely, or just for looking cute! What's so horrible about your pup knowing what you like?