To treat or not to treat
Many people object to using rewards in training, particularly food rewards, which is the most common tool in the positive reinforcement toolbox. The primary objection is because the reward is seen as a “bribe”, creating dogs that need food to work.
Rewards come in many forms. Training a dog without offering any rewards, whether food, praise or play, will not be motivating for your dog and is likely to be damaging to your relationship with them.
Food: bribe or positive reinforcement?
If rewards (food or otherwise) are used correctly, they are not a bribe but a reinforcer. A bribe is something that is presented before the desired behaviour to prompt them into action. A dog that is trained using bribes will generally only perform the behaviour if there is a reward in front of him first.
A reinforcer is something that is given after the desired behaviour by the dog. The dog understands that the reward appeared after they performed the behaviour, which reinforces the behaviour. A dog trained with positive reinforcement will perform the behaviour in the expectation or hope of a reward, but they don’t need to see or smell it ahead of time.
Luring – during early stages only
Treats are often used as a “lure” in the very early stages of training a specific behaviour. The food is used to guide the dog into a particular position.
The trick is to use an empty hand lure as soon as possible after the dog begins to grasp of the mechanics of the behaviour. You should still reward the behaviour, but don’t show the dog the treat until after the dog performs the behaviour – keep the treats in a pocket or treat pouch.
The next stage is to transform the empty hand lure into a hand gesture; again, only presenting the reward once the dog performs the behaviour.
Fading out the food
Once the dog is reliable in performing the behaviour, you can reward less frequently or sporadically. However, if they start to show reluctance to perform behaviours that they know perfectly well how to do, (after ruling out any medical issues), consider whether you should be paying (reinforcing) your dog for more of the work he does for you, particularly in distracting environments.
Another important tip for preventing accidental bribery is to ensure you have your dog’s attention before giving a cue. People often wave a treat under the dog’s nose to get their attention, unwittingly bribing their dog. Try making a silly noise to get your dog’s attention instead, or be more animated to gain your dog’s focus. If your dog is too distracted, move your training to a calmer environment until your dog is at a stage of training where he can remain focused on you without resorting to bribes.
My dog doesn’t work for food
If your dog doesn’t work well for food, it may be because he’s getting too much of it already or he has free access to it whenever he wants. If you load your dog’s meal up in a treat pouch instead of a bowl, he will soon be motivated to work for it. Food dispensing toys are another great way of encouraging your dog to work for his daily meals.
Another consideration is what types of food are you using in training. Some dogs are not that excited by kibble but will work well for soft, meaty treats. A trick to supercharge kibble is to place it in a bag with a couple of chunks of hot dog. The kibble will take on the smell of the hot dog. Remember, whatever calories you use as rewards should be subtracted from their meals to avoid weight gain.
However, some dogs will be more motivated by a tossed ball or a tug on a rope. The same considerations apply to these rewards. If you have to show your dog the ball before they will sit, the ball has become a bribe. The more effective sequence is to cue the behaviour, and only present the ball when the dog performs the behaviour. If the dog doesn’t perform the behaviour, it hasn’t been reinforced enough in the earlier stages. Take your training back a step to a calmer environment with more frequent positive reinforcement.