“Look, in the trainer’s hand!”
“It’s a treat.”
“It’s a bribe”.
“It’s a super way to train your dog!”
This cheesy rip-off of the beginning of the old Superman TV show illustrates the controversy of something I believe is incontrovertible— the effectiveness of using treats as rewards in dog training.
Cookie Chucker, Treat Tosser, Pavlovian Pinko, the pejoratives used to describe owners and trainers that use treats as rewards for their dogs can be very amusing. However, they miss the point of what positive rewards based training is all about— increasing the likelihood of a desired behavior when you don’t have treats in your hand!
Most of the arguments I hear against using treats are out of synch with my reality. Often, they center on a few central themes…
- The dog won’t work for you unless you have treats.
- Dogs should want to work for you, not for treats.
- Treating is bribing.
The irony here is that each one of these statements can be true. But as always, the mitigating factor is ignorance of the system. Ignorance or abuse of any system often leads to unintended consequences and can lead people to doubt its efficacy.
Dogs won’t Work unless you have Treats
If you watch a trainer with good timing and practiced instincts you will notice something. When they first start training a new behavior, they look for every opportunity to reward. Using a marker like a clicker or their voice, and a bag full of treats, they communicate each correct move by the dog in order to bring about that “aha” moment.
But soon the dance changes; as the dog comes to fully grasp the behavior, the trainer starts tightening up the criteria for reward. The sits need to be straighter. The downs need to be quicker. Suddenly more repetitions are required, or other learned behaviors are thrown into the mix before the treat is earned.
But guess what? The dog is still working for and seems very attentive to the trainers every move.
Contrast that with the average person training their dog. They aren’t as practiced so they don’t capitalize on all the opportunities to reward. They aren’t as coordinated at the mark/reward sequence so they often miss the behavior they meant to mark and mark something else.
Despite our lack of perfect training chops our dogs slowly start to get the behavior. Because the progress is so hard fought, it seems as if we need to reward every single time. A one to one treat ratio becomes the established norm and as a result the dog never learns that more than one behavior or a better version of that behavior is required. The dog doesn’t get the chance to learn that other rewards life rewards like playing or going for a walk or simply some freedom in the back yard are also part of the treat system.
Dogs Should Want to Work for you not for a Treat
Without pay for our labors the world would grind to a halt. Every living thing expects reward for their effort. Even in school we are paid by good grades and praise. I understand that we want a special bond with our dogs and we can absolutely get that through rewards based training. I don’t feel that using treats to communicate ideas with my dog diminishes our relationship in any way, shape, or form. I view working with my dogs as a partnership.
Treats are Bribes
This is absolutely true… IF you give the dog the treat before you request the behavior. But that’s not how they work. We can use treats to lure a dog into positions we want. But’s it only after they reach that position that we mark and treat the behavior. Personally, I don’t even give them the treat that I used as a lure.
The best analogy I can give for luring is this. If you’ve ever been taught a skill when you were very little, chances are that you were physically manipulated into a position. Your parent or little league coach showed you how to hold a bat by physically placing you in the correct position while explaining it to you.
We don’t do that with dogs. We can’t use langue to explain, and physically touching diverts their attention elsewhere. So we use treats to lure and then mark and treat when the proper position or behavior is reached.
In my opinion, when done properly, reward based training using treats and other life rewards is the best of all worlds. It provides a reward that the dog is willing to work for and gives me an effective tool to proactively instruct my dog instead of reactively correcting it. The bond created through this type of training is better than blind loyalty or devotion because it’s arrived at through common experience and earned respect.
I would love to hear your thoughts on using treats as rewards. Even if we disagree, let’s see if we can learn something from each other.