Question: My wife and I have had numerous rescue dogs over the years, and they all came out pretty good. Currently, we have a rescued bonded pair that are all over the map with their behavior. We got a certain result with a trainer, but she is very treat heavy, and frankly, always carrying a bag of treats around, doesn’t make much sense to us. Many of our issues remain, anyway. How can we move forward?
Answer: Well, you’ve hit on a common training syndrome. For the record, the dog treat business is a multimillion dollar industry. So many dogs are treat motivated, getting a dog focused on the fact you’ve got treats, can certainly have a result. Often in the long run however, it’s not really a desirable result. And it’s not a great plan moving forward.
I have noticed since I moved to Florida that many dog trainers here are extremely “treat centric.” And while I personally will use treats for some training, I use them very strategically and sparingly. And only at first, so it’s not a lifetime plan of rewarding with treats. Also, I use treats only for training. Not for “love.” My dog gets bully sticks, hooves and yak bones periodically, but that’s different. This also makes treats more valuable.
Negative reinforcement absolutely has its place in the dog training realm. That’s what a correction is. But timely positive reinforcement is the key to dog training, and is what allows humans to train their dogs.
And the best positive reinforcement for our dog is always affection and praise. Think about it. If you have a balanced pack, your dog is bonded with you. This is a primal relationship and by virtue of appropriate, nuanced messages, your dog should see you as the leader. Affection and praise coming from you is a big deal.
Treats should never ever be used as “bait.” A treat should come out of nowhere as the result of the thing your dog just did. And that reward should be accompanied with affection and praise. I never even use the word “treat.” That would be baiting.
It’s fine if your dog has an idea a treat might be involved in a training scenario. Once you get into the bag, he knows anyway, right? Heck, he knows when you start walking toward the treat cabinet! But don’t show the treat to him. They should be in your pocket, or concealed in your hand.
So here’s how it works. You tell Max “sit.” As soon as his butt is on the deck, put the treat into his mouth, and praise him up. All rewards should happen within 2 seconds of compliance. I then release the dog with “OK” because he really should hold his position until he’s released.
The next time, the method is the same. After running this routine X number of times, Max will figure out the pattern: He sits on cue and immediately gets rewarded. The idea is to wean him off the treats by producing them less and less. Like perhaps every other time. Then every third or fourth time. Then rarely. Then not at all.
What remains, however, is the praise and affection. But even that becomes sort of nominal. But it always remains. (Pro tip: It’s a lifetime of noticing compliance from your dog, and rewarding him with at the very least, “good boy”)
Today, my dog Tillie is basically fully trained, and there are many things I know she will do, and I pretty much expect her to do them. But just because I’m confident she will comply with a certain cue, doesn’t mean I take it for granted. I acknowledge every single thing she does for me, although she might only get a low-key “good girl” out of me at this point. In the back of her mind though, she associates that simple toned down reward, with the more effusive reward she received in the beginning, months ago.
And if you don’t bait with treats, you make cue compliance more about love.