Are You Misusing Treats in Your Dog Training?
Recently, in the dog training world, there have been questions brought up regarding the use of treats in today’s dog training.
It seems as though the tide has turned from choke chains, prong collars and compulsion, to positive reinforcement and the introduction of treats, to the misuse of treats which has turned into bribing our dogs to comply.
Bribery is never pretty and almost never works on a long term basis. Bribery is defined as a form of corruption, an act implying money or a gift that alters the behavior of an individual.
How Do You Know When Good Dog Training Turns to the Not So Pretty Bribery?
Once your dog has truly learned a behavior, and you no longer need to help him by luring him to successfully complete the behavior… but he only listens to you IF he knows you have and will use a treat you are crossing into the bounds of bribery!
If you have to SHOW your dog the treat in order to try to convince him to comply you are bribing him!
I thought for a long time before writing this article because I guess I would rather see people bribe their dogs before I would want to see people choke or use physical corrections and the last thing I want to do is convince people that using treats is the wrong way to train their dog. However, I know that people get frustrated when they realize they have to bribe their dogs to listen.
The first comment I usually get when I want to teach people about positive reinforcement and how to work effectively with their dog is “I don’t want to use food in dog training because that is bribery”.
Next, I have to try and educate them about the difference of using treats to their and their dog’s advantage and letting that use of treats backslide into bribery.
Why Do People End Up Bribing Their Dogs?
The number one reason people misuse treats is because they simply don’t know when or how to wean their dogs off of the treats they used to teach their dogs the behavior in the beginning of the learning stage.
The other reason I think that treat usage falls into the realm of bribery, is because people get lazy in their dog training.
How Do You Utilize Treats Without Bribing Your Dog?
Understanding How Learning Works
When you are learning a new behavior you need almost constant reinforcement. When someone is teaching you a new computer program, you need to be taught how to utilize the program. Success gives you what you want and failure teaches you what not to do.
Your dog is the same. In the beginning, you need to TEACH your dog what to do by luring him with the treat. By luring I mean sticking the treat near the dog’s nose or mouth and then enticing him to do the behavior I desire.
If I am trying to teach my new puppy to sit; I put a treat near his nose and then mouth and slowly bring the treat upward. As his nose goes up his rump goes down and his butt hits the ground at that moment I release the treat; this enforces the behavior of sitting. Before the sit the treat simply is used to “lure” the dog into the behavior.
I may have to do this several times in order to teach my dog what I want and then pair it with the command.
Once my dog has learned what I desire (the sit behavior) and the command and he truly understands in a number of situations (inside, outside, when he is distracted) I no longer need the treat to entice him. I should only need to give him the command and praise him to have him comply.
However, in many obedience classes around the world you still see owners “luring” their dogs to sit at week 4 or even week 8. At this point, since the dog knows the command the treat becomes bribery and is completely being over and misused.
Instead, the dog should be showing more and more challenging and difficult behaviors in order to get the treat.
For example: I would rarely give my puppy a treat after he has learned “sit” unless he delivers the command in an extraordinary way; if another dog sniffed my pup while I gave the command but my pup still sat he should get a treat.
If my puppy ignored a squirrel and sat when I asked him to he should get a treat, however he should almost rarely get a treat for a regular, boring or normal sit.
I say “rarely” because I still want to reward on occasion so my puppy learns to listen and he never truly knows when he is in for a small treat or a jackpot. This idea of intermittent reinforcement it what builds the reliability for a behavior for a lifetime.
If I NEVER reward my puppy for a “sit” again, after he has learned the behavior, he will be less and less likely to carry out the command when I give it. The key is to only reward rarely for behavior that is already learned and to sometimes “jackpot” your pup by giving him a bigger or better reward. This jackpot is what keeps him interested and motivated to perform for you!
If you are really, really good at this type of training and you build a very strong foundation of praise WHILE you are treating and jackpotting your dog both in the learning stages and the post stages your praise will become almost equal to the reward that a food treat gives! But you have to be consistent and happily give your puppy praise, games and excitement when you reward him!
For example: the dolphins and whales at SeaWorld are not constantly lured or rewarded they have to complete more and more advanced skills and only are rewarded after several difficult and chained behaviors have been preformed!
Don’t Get Lazy!
“Up the ante” when working with your dog make him perform more and more difficult behavior for his rewards!
It is much easier to constantly lure your dog and reward him for the same behavior over and over and over again even if he KNOWS the behavior. People get stuck in a rut and they don’t want to expect their dog to do something more difficult or they don’t want to see their dog fail.
Your 8th grader should not be doing 4th grade math! As your children learn the subjects get more and more difficult in order for them to be successful at learning and moving on. Sometimes tests are aced and sometimes tests are failed however school continues to get more and more challenging to stimulate, entertain, and challenge the student. Imagine how boring it would be to stay at a 4th grade math level. You would probably refuse to comply to do the same thing over and over for the same reward too!
Likewise it would be ridiculous to reward yourself for adding 2+2 but it would be a great idea to reward yourself or if your spouse rewarded you with jewelry or a new car for passing your college statistics class or getting your doctorate! Rewards can be a wonderful tool when used appropriately!
Your dog will excel, he will also fail occasionally. You will have to back up in your training and sometimes you will need to raise your expectations in him and what he is capable of. He will frustrate you and sometimes he will simply amaze you!!
The KEY is to be constantly changing!
Expect more and more but occasionally give him a bonus for a job well done and this will keep you from falling into the pitfalls of bribery and a dog that only listens when he can see or smell a treat on your body 😉 you will become EXCITING!
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.