We need to talk about treats

"I want my dog to listen to me because he wants to, not because of food!" It never fails to enter the discussion when I'm speaking to new clients. Many people seem to think that using treats in training indicates a weakness or a lack of respect from a dog to its guardian. This is simply not true, and with all we know about canine psychology and neuroscience it’s time to leave this outdated idea behind.

For many of my dog trainings clients, one of the first questions they ask is “When can I stop using treats?” I always say, well... never, and that the idea is to solidify and proof the behavior, then begin using treats intermittently to keep the dog guessing and hanging on in hope of a treat. This idea is similar to why people gamble; no one gambles thinking they’re going to win on every round, but the hope that they might win keeps them coming back. If a dog thinks there’s even a possibility of a treat, he’s more likely to work for it. But it's our job as the trainer to make sure that reinforcement is usually happening somewhere, in some way.

While anthropomorphizing can sometimes lead to misunderstanding of our dogs, I think this metaphor is one place where it can help. Imagine your dog's training as his ‘job’. If you imagine this scenario, then treats become your dog’s ‘pay’, and you are his ‘boss’. Now, ask yourself if you would be willing to do the work you are doing now for little to no pay. I would bet that the majority of people desire pay and would refuse a non-paying job. And even people who do work for free (i.e. volunteer) find the task intrinsically motivating. If they didn't, they wouldn't do it. Asking your dog to work for you with no pay off (treats, a game of fetch, access to resources) is similar to your boss asking you to work for free. How long would that last?

However, as you build a rapport with your boss and company, you may find that you are more willing to do favors and go the extra mile. This is the same for your dog; the more you work together, the closer your relationship will become and the more likely your dog is to work to please you and because he's having fun with you! You will be able to pay your dog less regularly, but you will want to keep your dog guessing as to when he will get paid, so you want to reward intermittently.

It’s time that we move away from the Lassie/Disney image of the dog, that idealistic view of our canine counterparts as driven solely to please their human master. I have news for you: you are not the only thing that matters to your dog, and they were not put into this world just to do whatever you asked. The bond we have with our dogs can only be strengthened when we come to accept them as sentient, feeling creatures, not robots put here for human exploitation, and come to recognize their wants and needs in addition to ours.

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Mary Thompson, CPDT-KA, PMCT
E-Mail: mary@happyhounduniversity.com

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