The Trick with Treats

“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…

  1. The dog won’t work for you unless you have treats.
  2. Dogs should want to work for you, not for treats.
  3. 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.



11 thoughts on “The Trick with Treats

  1. Absolutely brilliant blog. Good trainers I know use treats as part of their toolbox, and never have problems when they decide to fade them out. I am the world’s most miserly treat giver – they get great ones at first and then less, and less. In some situations, particularly rehab, it has been food treats that have saved the day and more importantly, saved the dog. A very powerful and underestimated resource. Like any tool, you have to educate yourself to use it properly.

  2. I don’t see anything wrong with a dog working for a reward. Like you said, “Without pay for our labors the world would grind to a halt. Every living thing expects reward for their effort. ” I really like my job, but I’d quit in a hurry if they stopped paying me. I wouldn’t cook dinner if I didn’t get to eat any of it. Pretty much everything we do, either we do because it’s intrinsically enjoyable, or it’s our key to getting something that is.

    Treats are the blatant, obvious reward, and they are usually supplemented with other things once the behavior is learned. I don’t have to give my dog a treat every time she sits. Sometimes she just gets praise, or a scritch under the chin. But we had to use treats to get her to figure out that planting her butt when we said “Sit” was a good thing.

    We can’t communicate with our dogs in words or explain why we want them to pee outside or lie down or walk without taking our arms off. So, treats are one of the communication tools.

  3. Oh, one other thing I wanted to add. My understanding is that you’re not supposed to give the dog the treat from the lure hand, but from your other hand, and generally you keep the treats you’re actually giving the dog concealed. That helps keep them from only doing what you ask when you have a treat visible.

    • You can reward with the lure treat, if you don’t show the treat to begin with. Each hand signal I use is devised to conceal a treat, so I can lure (as necessary) with scent rather than sight. Plus it encourages the dog to engage me more using its nose which helps maintain focus. I only show a treat to puppies until they learn how to follow a scent.

      @Kevin, well done. Rewards (food, play, affection) increase the frequency of a behavior. Removal of such rewards leads to the extinction of a behavior. The trick in removing unwanted behavior is to find where the reward is coming from so the reinforcement can be stopped.

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  5. Many people confuse how treats are used during learning/teaching and how they are used during behavior maintenance. High ROR is essential during learning and is essential in developing a new behavior with a goal of future fluency.

    There are some great ABA resources out there that cover the concepts of errorless learning and precision teaching. I think if we can adapt these concepts to the teaching we do with our dogs, we will be able to get some amazing results (with increased efficiency).

    I was just at an operant conditioning workshop with Bob Bailey and we really got to experience the truth of these basic concepts.

    • Very much agreed Mary. It’s that transition from being a consistent reliable and timely treat dispensing machine to the task master that requires a better version of each behavior that gets many people. You have to learn that the rate of reinforcement needs to be adjusted. Just like us, if done correctly, they will keep putting the behaviors into the slot machine even though it doesn’t payout every time.

  6. Pawsome blog! I learned with treats. I don’t get a treat for everything anymore, but I still obey because this time could be the time with the treat! BOL!!

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