Training Your Dog with Treats — Good or Bad?

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Whenever I get a young dog in for training the first thing I evaluate in the dog is what makes him/her tick.  Sometimes its a tug toy, other times its a throw toy, but most of the time it’s dog treats.

Why is that?  Well if I had to guess, it has to do with how motivated young dogs are about food when they go to their new home at 7-8 weeks of age.  As new owners, we want to bond with the dog, we want them to come when they are called.  So we naturally reach for something the dog wants and offer that up as a bribe to come to you.  And you know what?  For 99 out of 100 dogs it works, so good we start using treats to train dogs for sit, stay, lay-down, etc.  Sound familiar?  I bet it does.

So this begs the question; Aren’t we bribing our dogs if we use treats to train them?  As a demonstrator/lecturer I hear this argument against training a dog with treats all the time.    So lets be clear about one thing: training with treats can be done in 2 ways: you can shape behavior with treats (reinforcing behavior) or you can bait a dog with treats (so called “bribing”).  

Shaping or Reinforcing Behavior with Treats

Training dogs using treats to shape behavior is very different than baiting or bribing a dog.   Shaping behavior occurs through “Operant Conditioning”.  In Operant Conditioning a dog’s behavior is conditioned by the consequences that follows.  When a dog performs a particular behavior that produces a favorable result, he is likely to repeat the behavior.  So, in Operant Conditioning, the dog learns to become problem solvers by trying many things to get the favorable result.  We mark the negative behavior by simply saying “No”, in other words keep trying.  When the dog starts performing actions that represent the desired behavior we reinforce that behavior by offering a reward.   With each successive attempt we reward for the dog performing a behavior a little closer to what we ultimately expect — and as a result to are shaping the behavior through reinforcement.  

Remember in Operant Conditioning the reward is not presented until AFTER the behavior is preformed,  which makes the reward reinforce the behavior.  Now the reward does not have to be a treat, it could be a throw toy or tug toy,  but in most cases a treat is what  motivates young dog.  

Now I am not a Operate Conditioning purest who thinks that everything should be done as a reinforcement.  After all, there is a fine line between shaping and baiting anyway.  How long do you think it takes for your dog to figure out that you have the treats in your training vest pocket or bait bag?  Not long at all.  And our body language is probably pushing or pulling the dog in one direction or another.  

I like to think of myself as a balanced trainer that knows how to read dogs and has many tools in his tool box to get the job done. Sometimes the right tool is a screwdriver sometimes its a wrench.  Its my job as a dog trainer to be able to know the difference between a screw and a bolt.   

Baiting or Bribing Dogs with Treats

When you bait or bribe a dog to perform a particular behavior you produce the treats BEFORE and lure the dog into performing the desired behavior.   Many trainers, like myself, believe that with some dogs you can speed up the process of training if you use subtle baiting to teach the dog what is expected.

Alright, I can hear the “Operant Conditioning” and “Motivational” purists screaming at their laptops/tablets/phones – are you kidding me you’re encouraging baiting when training dogs.  Not exactly, what I am referring to is proper placement of rewards regardless of timing.  Of course, I don’t believe in leading a dog around the room with treats out in front of the dogs nose in order to teach a concept.

No matter when the treat is presented, before or after a behavior, proper placement of the reward is critical to the dog’s understanding of the behavior you are asking them to perform.  For example, the proper placement of a reward for the “LAY DOWN” command would be at ground level and below the dog’s nose — not above their head.  This can go a long way toward communicating with your dog.

Remember, sometimes it’s necessary to bait dogs or use a body language to get your message across to the dog so they perform a particular behavior successfully.   After all — isn’t the name of the game when training dogs — Success Conditioning?

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