Food for Thought: Treats Are Rewards, Not Bribes
Look, it’s the treat lady!
He’s only doing that because of the treats.
She won’t pay attention to me because she likes your treats better.
These are things I commonly hear from clients. Sure, dogs always love my treats, which are really tasty (apparently). And I do pay out a lot of them in a lesson. But not for free! They have to be earned by offering behaviors I want.
This starts with a voluntary Sit and looking up at me, instead of jumping up or trying to snatch food out of my bait bag or hand. I don’t tell the dog what to do or what not to do; I just wait and capture four-on-the-floor, then a sit, then eye contact. It happens very quickly.
The rapt attention and rapid response is not all about the food, as many people believe. It also demonstrates the power of clear communication and positive feedback. Dogs are often surprised yet always delighted when their good behavior results in getting what they want. Too often, good behavior is taken for granted.
We win too when they make that connection in their brain between behavior and reward. That happens when we make it clear, That’s what I like! You’ve earned this yummy treat. We know they understand because they will immediately do it again, with enthusiasm.
This is the training method that makes animals think. And they need to calm down in order to think, which is helpful for us, as well. It makes them love learning because (done well), they are always right! Who among us isn’t motivated by success and positive feedback?
Why Click and Treat
Clicker training is like a game where both players win. The rules are simple: (1) the click provides the necessary information, at the moment of the desired behavior, and (2) it’s followed by presenting food (at first), which provides the motivation to repeat that behavior. These two essentials for learning are what make clicker training super-effective. No, you won’t always have to carry a clicker to get your dog to behave. It’s a teaching tool.
Reinforcement strengthens behavior. This is a law that applies to all species, including humans. Most of us work for money; some of us will work for praise, or the satisfaction of helping someone, or producing something useful or beautiful. Animals work for food. Many will also work for toys, attention, praise, smiles, or scratching. It’s up to the individual what they find valuable, and value depends on the situation.
The argument for reinforcing with treats is, if they are very appealing and quickly eaten, the behavior can be repeated many times, building “muscle memory.” Training with treats works faster. And the size and type of treat matters. (Click here for more on this topic)
No, you won’t always have to use treats. When the behavior is reliable, food can be replaced by real-life reinforcers. But don’t expect to get a reliable response if you teach with praise and petting rather than food, especially with puppies. (For more on this, click here)
Timing Is Everything
The most important thing to understand about the use of food in training is timing. A reinforcer is contingent on the behavior, so it always comes after.
A common misunderstanding of timing may explain why some (including plenty of old-school trainers) believe positive training is ALL about the food. Amateur trainers go wrong when they show the food upfront—either holding out a treat to get their dog to Come, or grabbing and shaking the entire bag to start a training session.
Luring (aka bribing) makes dogs and people become dependent on having food in hand. Show me the money. People who lure a lot will complain, He won’t listen unless I have treats. You get what you train, even accidentally. So the moral is: Don’t even reach for the food until after your dog has done the desired behavior. Keep it hidden behind your back, in your treat bag, in your pocket (unless you’re sitting), or in a covered container nearby. If you don’t know how to get the behavior you want without luring, consult a positive trainer.
Success Is Reinforcing
When I started training, my goal was to work with behavior problems. I assumed that basic training would be boring and repetitive. But I was so wrong! Good manners is really fun to teach. Even after several years, I always feel thrilled when a dog sits in front of me without being asked, with bright eyes and a smile, tail thumping. He knows he’s doing “the right thing” and that he’s about to get rewarded for it. That’s my reinforcement!
When we teach with clear communication—including body language dogs understand—plus positive feedback, our dogs are learning not just how to Come, Sit, Down, and other basic cues; they are also learning to focus, listen, and comply happily. They are becoming more confident too. And that pays off for Us, with more attention and cooperation. It’s a win-win. And it’s addictive!
Copyright Lisa Benshoff 2018