To Treat or Not to Treat?

For Positive Reinforcement Coaches there really is no question.

How do we tell our dogs that they are performing the behaviour we like?

Sure, we can say ‘Good Dog’ but in most cases that is really not going to cut it.

Most dogs are food-driven, so why wouldn’t we use their most desired resource to reinforce their good behaviour?

As humans, most of us go to work. Why? It’s simple really, to earn a living. Some people are fortunate to have a job that they find rewarding and fulfilling in some way. However, at the end of the day, we all work to get paid. Dogs are no different. Most dogs find training or learning new tricks very rewarding in themselves, but again they won’t know which behaviours are correct if we do not reward them with treats.

When we start a new job, we will be required to learn new skills. Imagine if your boss said ‘Well, you have done marvellously and have mastered that skill, so now I do not need to pay you’ I imagine most of us would not turn up the next day. Dogs are no different. When training or teaching a new behaviour we should reward or reinforce every little attempt to reach the final goal. For example, while teaching a dog to shake hands we should treat when they even just lift their paw off the ground, then treat again for a higher lift until we finally get to the desired height to shake hands. At this stage, we should ‘jackpot’ with quite a few treats and lots of praise. I can not imagine how we would get the behaviour without the use of treats.

Understandably, there will be those who do not agree with this method. However, scientific research has proved over many, many years that reinforcement causes the reoccurrence of the behaviour.

Here is a theory I have heard before, ‘dogs should do the behaviour because they want to please us’ Well yes, most dogs do want to please us; but how will they know which behaviour is pleasing to us?

Another line of thought is ‘after a dog has learned the behaviour they do not need treats anymore’ – Well not entirely correct. As a dog becomes familiar with a desired behaviour yes, we can reduce the amount of treats needed. However, an occasional reward will confirm to the dog that they are still doing the correct behaviour and will ensure they keep performing the behaviour. This is called the gambling effect…. For the gamblers out there it will be a familiar scenario, we keep pumping the machine full of coins, and surely it will pay off eventually.

Your dog will not get fat from eating treats if you take the treats out of your dog’s daily allocation of food. Dogs are foragers naturally and actually like to work for their food. Dogs would rather have their food delivered outside of the bowl. Scatter feeding dry food, wet food in lick mats or kongs, food in puzzles and food for rewards for good behaviour, all of these food delivery systems are more desirable for your dog. The more your dog works for their food the more they use their minds, which in turn mentally stimulates resulting in a confident and well-behaved dog.

It’s so confusing when people say ‘But he is only doing the behaviour because you have treats’. Dogs are not humans or robots so to imagine that they will just perform certain behaviours because we asked them to is ridiculous.

But what about negative punishment as a reinforcer of behaviour? Using a choke chain or electric collar, or yelling or physically manipulating a dog might get you the behaviour you desire. However, the dog is only performing that particular behaviour because they are terrified of what will happen if they do not do it, or they do not do certain things because they are petrified of their owner.

Science has proven that behaviours reinforced with positive, no-force methods last for the lifetime of a dog. I can guarantee that any dog that has been trained with aversive methods will show their stress in other behaviours. The dog that is yanked around on a choke chain may not be that great at recall. I certainly would not want to come running to the person who physically harms me.

We should be aiming to work with our dogs, not controlling them. If you are someone who does not believe in using treats because you feel the dog should ‘just do what you say because you are the dominant or alpha in this dog/person relationship’ then I hear the 1970s calling you.

If it is possible to achieve desirable behaviours with dogs using kind methods, why would anyone use anything else?

Leave a comment