Several years ago, my dogs and I went on a drive over Guanella Pass in Colorado to enjoy some fresh air and beautiful fall scenery together. As we were making our way over the other side to Georgetown, two sheriff vehicles in front of us blocked the road, stopping us and all who were behind us. One of the deputies approached us and told us to make ourselves comfortable, even go walk our dogs, because we were going to be there for a while; a group of hot rod enthusiasts had a permit for an event and they were closing the road off for a race.
I wasn’t bothered by this as we weren’t on any set schedule and it is a beautiful place to be stuck! I got the dogs and headed down a little trail nearby, then came back after a few to take a place alongside other spectators by the road to watch the cars go by.
My then-foster dog, Uma, was a highly reactive dog. I knew the crowd of people and sounds of the cars would likely be stressful for her, and I of course had my treat pouch full of bacon ready. As she was able to look at people and then look at me, I would praise her every so often and give her small bits of the bacon for these behaviors. Same with the cars as they came by, particularly if they were loud—as she was able to be calm and offer other behaviors, I continued to reward her every so often with the bacon. Jasper also got bacon for similarly being well-behaved.
After a while I decided enough was enough. We were all getting tired and Uma was older and had medical issues, too, so I took them back to the car to give them water and allow all of us to relax. They’d done very well at being calm, and Uma didn’t even bark once!
When it comes to reactive dogs, less is more. I definitely didn’t want to end up in a place where she would get too tired or trigger-stacked, and end up reacting or feeling badly. All these situations must end on a high note and lead to a more positive association for the dog, rather than go too long.
I passed by a lady who felt compelled to say to me, “Bribing them to be good works.” Since what I was doing was not bribing, I simply replied, “Actually, I was rewarding them for good behavior,” and just kept walking. I admit, it made me cranky. I didn’t have the energy to engage further but I also wanted her to know what I actually was doing!
I hear it so much—isn’t using treats (or any reward, for that matter) for training bribery? Critics of positive reinforcement methods will often talk about this, and some seem to think that, if we took the treats away, the bad behavior would rear its ugly head. Others also seem to think that dogs should just do what we want of them, out of “respect” and no need for any reinforcement.
Let’s ask ourselves: What is bribery and what is reinforcement?
Bribery would be if I had to show a treat to a dog first, every time, to get her to do something. If my practice was based on this and the dog learns that the treat has to precede his behavior, I would be doing her a disservice. Timing is very crucial when it comes to bribery versus reinforcement.
Reinforcement is when my dog offers a behavior and I can mark and follow it with something she likes, like bacon, to reward her for making the right choice, and therefore increase the frequency of her choosing this desired behavior. When I am teaching something new, I will mark and reinforce every time the dog offers the behavior. As the behavior becomes more consistent, I will then switch up my reinforcement—marking and treating every other time, every few times, and offering other rewards and praise. This is basic operant conditioning, and it works to teach a dog what choices to make if you do it correctly.
Food is a powerful motivator. It helps turn off fear. It is easy to carry and conceal, and it is essential to survive. It’s easy and relatively inexpensive, particularly if you make your own simple treats and use “human” foods. (A whole boiled chicken, diced into treats, can go a long way!) Your dog needs to eat, so why not use her dinner as a reward for behavior you want?
We may have this fantasy of all dogs living to please us. While it’s true that most dogs are motivated by pleasing us at times, it’s not true all the time and for some dogs, pleasing us may not be much of a motivator! Dogs are living beings with drives and desires all their own. It’s our job to recognize this and work with them to get and reward the behavior we do want. It is so much more powerful—and fun!—to have this proactive, rather than reactive, approach.
The ideal is to use a variety of rewards and mix them up to keep it interesting and engaging for the dog, and to vary the delivery as they gain proficiency. And with dogs who possess an emotional response to stimuli, it is extremely crucial to follow through with food rewards to help them make more positive associations that can help them feel better, calmer and able to think to make the best choices.
Want to learn more? I recommend these links:
- Association of Professional Dog Trainers: “Why Do Trainers use Food When Training?“
- The Pet Professional Guild: “The Proper Use of Food in Dog Training“
- Victoria Stillwell: “Why Positive Training is Not Bribery“
Thank you for reading!
Laura McGaughey, CPDT-KA