"My dog understands the commands but she won't do it unless I have a treat."


Training dogs with treats (The Lure and Reward Method) is a great way to get started teaching a dog something new, or even as a way to maintain a high level of motivation over time. On the other hand, it totally sucks if you wind up with a dog that will only work for food. I call that a “show me the money dog.” Not only is it a hassle to constantly need a bag of cookies on you, it is actually damaging to your relationship with your dog. No joke, it really is, because the overuse of food can destroy any intrinsic motivation that would have otherwise been even more powerful than food. 


Here's the good news: Training with treats is not a problem at all when done wisely. Problems arise only when food is used as the primary, or only, form of motivation. This is easy to avoid or resolve by following a handful of basic principles. Check it out. 


Balanced Training: Balance means we use treats along with other, more intrinsic forms of motivation, such as petting, play and sincere, genuine, loving praise. We also combine treats with “molding” techniques to physically guide, or pressure, the dog into position. We also use treats to introduce leash control and corrections. When treats are used in combination like this, you will never end up with a “show me the money” dog. 


Fading The Lure: Even if you are uncomfortable with the physical aspects of Balanced Training and want to take a “Purely-Positive” approach, you still need to have a plan for fading the lure. Fading the lure means we stop holding a treat in our hand to get the dog to follow it. We need to make the treat go from a lure to a reward, which means the treat is not shown to the dog before asking for a behavior, rather, it is given to the dog after they have performed the requested behavior. This is easily done by using a hand gesture, as you would with a treat, but don’t actually have a treat in your hand. Then pull the treat from your treat bag or pocket and give it to the dog. 


Intermittent Reinforcement Schedule: In the very beginning we generally will use what is called a continuous reinforcement schedule, which means giving the dog a treat every time but this needs to stop very quickly. Once you have faded the lure, then you need to start only giving a treat every other time or every second or third time. In behavioral science this is called an intermittent reinforcement schedule. There are several different variations of reinforcement schedules but we don’t need to geek out right now. For now, let’s just say it means you start to mix it up, or randomize when you do or don’t give the dog a treat. The simplest metaphor I know of is that we are going from being a vending machine to a slot machine. 


Don't Forget To Pet and Praise: Being “Positive” simply means to reward the dog, it does not mean to feed the dog. You will develop a better relationship with your dog by being more versatile and creative with your reward system. Pet your dog, play tug or fetch with your dog, and don’t be afraid to put some charm and personality into it. Yes, you can still use treats, just don’t use a treat every time and even when you do use food, pet and praise the dog while you give them the treat. Mix it up a bit, keep ‘em guessing what the next cool thing will be. Your dog will love it and definitely will not look at you as if to say, “Hey man, where’s the cookie?”


Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer, Canine Behavior Consultant and Owner of Thriving Canine. 

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