Dog Treats: Bribe or Reward?

Many people are against using treats in dog training as they think of it as a bribe, or fear that their dog will only do something when they have a treat. This can be the case, and often is, when treats are used incorrectly. Used correctly, they can be a powerful training tool.

Just to clear something up: a bribe is something that is used to influence behaviour, whereas a reward is something that is given as a consequence of a behaviour, so in training it’s all about timing.

How to get it wrong!

An example of a common training mistake is this: people often try to coax a dog into returning to them with a treat, shouting “What’s this?!” It may work if the dog finds the prospect of the treat more alluring than the other dog/rabbit or whatever has their attention.This often isn’t the case however, and after a few repetitions the dog learns that running to their owner also means the end of fun, which may tip the balance in favour of fun fighting/rabbit chasing next time! If you then don’t have a treat and you try recall, your chances are yet slimmer, as there is even less motivation to run back.

Dogs need payment too!

Dogs, like people, need motivation to do something. You wouldn’t wash your car for example, if it wasn’t going to look sparkly clean when you’d finished, and you certainly wouldn’t wash a neighbour’s if they weren’t paying you – unless of course, you are a very generous type, in which case the motivation is to feel that you’ve done a good deed! Dog owners often think that a dog should just live to please it’s master, but would you really want a dog like this – a mindless drone? Some breeds do seem happy just to receive praise, but even that is a reward.

We choose our dogs for their unique character, and owe it to them to find out what makes them tick so we can enrich their lives, then they will be more likely to enrich ours in return!

Why does food work so well?

Food is such a great motivator in dogs (and other animals), as it is the number

homemade dog treat.  Dog Treats: Bribe or Reward?

Use healthy treats like tiny chopped up pieces of liver

one thing needed for survival, apart from air, water and light, which are a lot more readily available! Because all organisms are hard wired to survive at all costs, treats are great to reinforce the behaviours you want. In professional dog training they are known as a Primary Reinforcer (something the dog needs).

How to get it right!

Effective training using treats involves pairing a Marker Signal with a food reward. This means using a word or device (eg. Clicker) to let the dog know a treat is coming. When the dog performs a desired behaviour that you have either lured/captured/shaped (I will talk about these methods in later posts), the Marker is given, and the treat, making the behaviour more likely next time. You would then Add the Cue (or name the behaviour, eg.” Come” for recall), and when the dog has made the connection between the two you can ask for the behaviour in different environments with gradually increasing distractions. With this type of training which utilizes Classical and Operant Conditioning, reflex like responses are achieved, meaning your dog doesn’t consider the consequences any more, just reacts to your instructions!


by Jamie Muir Dog Behavioural Specialist

Follow me on Google+