Top Three Wrong Times for Treats in Dog Training

The terms “positive”, “positive reinforcement” and “reward-based” dog training get tossed around a lot these days. Trainers that identify with these labels tend to interpret them as meaning “treat-based” but in actuality NONE of these labels have the word food or treat in them. There are so many other forms of rewards and reinforcements that you arguably don’t need to use food at all. However, as a balanced trainer, I do find food helpful for many things but I will also admit it can become a crutch if you are not careful. It is also very easy to get accustomed to shoveling cookies at a dog and lose objectivity, assuming it can do no harm. The truth is that you can cause harm to the dog and to your relationship with the dog by using food as a primary reinforcement too frequently or at inappropriate times. As a trainer who does believe in using food rewards, I would like to help you avoid misuse by sharing my top three WRONG times to use food in dog training.

Here we go:

  • When Not Needed: Traditional trainers might argue that food is never needed to train a dog so let me clarify my stance on this. What I mean by not needed is that a more intrinsic option of positive motivation is available. By positive I mean something the dog is working to achieve, not something he is working to avoid. For example: If your dog comes when called for praise, petting and the joy of your company then it's best to NOT use food. The intrinsic motivation you are lucky enough to have could actually be damaged by using treats and the next thing you know you're that person...you know, the one chasing their dog at the park shaking a bag of treats saying, "Lookie, lookie, I have a cookie!" So here's the trick: Use treats for luring when it's helpful and use treats when extra motivation is needed. The key is to fade the food quickly, making it harder and harder to achieve and most importantly, don't use food at all when you don't need it.
  • Bribery: A food lure is generally used to teach a dog something new or for "polishing" a known behavior such as getting your dog's Auto-Sit perfectly straight. Once you begin "fading the lure" the treat can still be used as a reward that comes AFTER the desired behavior has been performed. A treat becomes a "bribe" when used to get a dog to perform a known behavior at a proven level of proficiency. Down is the command I see bribed most often in my obedience classes. "Down...down...down," they plead, tapping the floor. After a few failed attempts they pull out the treat and boom, the dog goes right down. Clearly the dog knows what they want and is saying, "Show me the money!" The food lure should quickly transform into a hand signal with the food reward being given after following the empty hand. Then move on to a "variable reinforcement schedule" where the dog gets a treat sometimes but not every time. Mix in more intrinsic rewards such as petting for best results.
  • Wrong Mental or Emotional State. Many well-intended people will give their dog a food reward for following a cue, such as “Sit” or “Watch Me”, but miss the fact that the dog is in a fearful, anxious, hyper or aggressive state. For example: A common strategy is to use food to "redirect" a reactive dog's focus towards the handler or to "counter condition" the association with something perceived as a threat. This is great, in theory, and sometimes it works. Other times, unfortunately, it only distracts the dog momentarily and may actually make things worse in the long run. The question we always need to ask when giving treats is, “How is the dog interpreting this experience?” What is really being reinforced, the behavior or the state of mind? Is he still thinking about attacking that dog across the street? Is he panting and whining? Are his ears turned back towards the sound he’s terrified of? Does he take the treat and immediately turn his attention back towards the stimulus? Is it possible that he thinks you like the overstimulated state he is in? Sometimes you need to be a "thought detective" to be sure you are not fueling the wrong mental or emotional state in your dog.

This goal of this article is not to be anti-treats but merely to inspire a line of questioning. Are treats classically conditioning your dog to be more fearful, aggressive, hyper or anxious? Are you creating a “Show Me the Money” dog? Are you overlooking other forms of positive reinforcement that may be more powerful and better for your relationship with your dog? Food can be a very powerful training tool but awareness of the three wrong times for treats is a key element to successful dog training and rehabilitation.

-Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer and Canine Behavior Consultant

© Thriving Canine 2015

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