• Lisa Mullinax, CDBC

"TREAT" TRAINING AND OTHER MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT


Even though our dogs are reliant on us to provide them with food every day, dog owners (and countless dog trainers) still have trouble grasping the idea of getting the food out of the dog bowl and into the dog's training routine.

Food is universally motivating for all animals - we can't survive without it. Food is readily available and portable, and makes it possible to train in a variety of situations and environments.

So what is your reason for not using food in training?

I DON'T WANT TO BRIBE MY DOG

I don't want you to bribe your dog, either. In fact, it drives me nuts to see people bribe dogs in the guise of training. However, there is a big difference between bribing and reinforcing with food.

Bribery is the act of presenting the food to the dog in order to get the dog to perform a desired behavior.

Reinforcing is the act of presenting something a dog finds valuable (food, toy, praise, etc.) after the dog has performed the behavior.

Below are some examples of the difference between bribes and rewards in dog training.

HEEL

BRIBED BEHAVIOR

Owner holds treat in front of dog while walking to keep dog in position

REINFORCED BEHAVIOR

Owner presents treat after dog walks in heel position for varying distances

ATTENTION

BRIBED BEHAVIOR

Owner holds treat next to eyes to encourage eye contact

REINFORCED BEHAVIOR

Owner presents the treat after the dog has made eye contact

RECALL/NAME RESPONSE

BRIBED BEHAVIOR

Owner extends treat filled hand before calling dog

REINFORCED BEHAVIOR

Owner presents treat after the dog has come when called

In the case of bribed dogs, owners generally don't reward the dog for good behavior except for when they have a treat in their hand. The dog learns that it is only rewarding to respond to their owner when they can clearly see the owner is holding food.

The rewarded dog, on the other hand, learns that good things are delivered after he performs a behavior, and so is likely to perform that behavior without the owner having to present food first, making it very easy to integrate other types of non-food rewards into the dog's training program.

I WANT MY DOG TO RESPECT ME, NOT JUST WORK FOR A COOKIE

Who do you respect more: the boss who insists you work overtime without pay or the boss who recognizes your hard work and gives you an extra bonus in your pay at the end of the week? Who are you going to make the extra effort for? Who do you consider a good leader?

Dogs that are punished into "submission" don't work out of respect, any more than the person who gives their wallet to a mugger at gunpoint holds the criminal in high esteem. Force and intimidation may get a response, but it has nothing to do with respect, nor does it ensure a reliable response in the absence of a threat.

TREAT TRAINED DOGS GET FAT

Whether the food comes out of a bowl or from a hand doesn't matter - if the dog's owner is not carefully regulating the dog's food intake and providing sufficient exercise, the dog can become overweight. Overfeeding causes obesity, not training treats.

Further, because there is no rule that says dogs have to eat out of a bowl, owners can use the dog's entire meal as rewards during training, adding no additional calories to the dog's diet.

I'LL HAVE TO KEEP FOOD ON ME ALL THE TIME

The same could be said of choke chains, prong collars and shock collars. If the training isn't done correctly from the beginning, the dog's level of obedience will be dependent on whatever tools were used. It is not food, itself, that causes dependence, but the skill of the person using the tool.

Since a reward follows the dog performing the desired command, the dog doesn't have to see the reward before complying. This means other rewards can be introduced to the training process once the dog has learned the behavior is rewarding.

TREAT TRAINING DOESN'T WORK ON DOMINANT DOGS

Back when we didn't have the understanding of dog behavior that we have today, people used the word "dominant" to describe...well, pretty much everything from the breed to the behavior. Below are the three most common uses.

Dominant = Aggressive

When a dog is in a situation where it is stressed, the digestive system shuts down and the dog will refuse food. This is what trainers call over threshold. This does not mean that reward-based methods are not effective, but that they are being applied incorrectly. This often happens when owners or inept trainers expose the dog to a problem situation, wait for it to react and then attempt to train.

Knowledgeable trainers understand the importance of keeping a dog under-threshold, exposing the dog to the situation that triggers the problem behavior at point which the dog does not react with fear or aggression and is able to learn new behaviors.

Dominant = Stubborn

Some breeds were previously considered too dominant or stubborn to train. These breeds include most terriers, hounds and northern breeds, such as Huskies and Malamutes. These highly intelligent dogs just didn't respond well to forceful training methods. With the introduction of reward-based training methods, these dogs are now competing in obedience, agility and other competitions. Whether the reward is food or play, these dogs are learning that working with their owner that gets them the good things in life.

Dominant = Breed

Thanks to media misrepresentation and public ignorance, some breeds of dogs are assumed to be more aggressive than others. This has lead to the belief that certain breeds are more "dominant" than others and require more aversive training methods and equipment.

In reality, positive dog trainers LOVE working with Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, Dobermans and other so-called dominant breeds because they are so easy to train with positive methods! Pit Bulls learn the same way Poodles do. In fact, anyone who has ever trained a Toy Poodle will tell you that training a small dog is often MUCH more difficult!

In each of these cases, this myth is perpetuated by those who have either never used food rewards or are unskilled at the use of food rewards.

MY DOG ISN'T "FOOD MOTIVATED"

Your dog must eat to survive and is, therefore, naturally m