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Bribery in dog training

We’ve all heard someone say “I don’t want to use food when training my dog because it’s bribery.” Done incorrectly yes it can be. If you need to hold up the treat before your dog responds, that is a bribe. The goal in training when using food treats is to use them as a paycheck for the dog. Our job is to teach them how they can earn a chance to get paid.

I am unsure where people get the impression that dogs should just do what we ask because we asked it. If someone told you to do something out of the blue because it benefited them, not you, would you simply jump to the task no questions asked? Would we continue to work at our jobs if we didn’t get a paycheck for it? I’m guessing the answer is no to either question. So why do we ask it and expect it of our dogs?

Dogs only do behavior that works for them in some way. One example might be their not coming to us when we call them. Perhaps the thing they are sniffing is more interesting. Or perhaps that running away from us so we chase them is more fun than going back into the house. This means we need to find ways to motivate them to do what we ask when we ask it. We need to make it worthwhile for them to listen to us.

It is "The Lassie Myth" to expect they want to work for us simply to please us. Smart dogs may learn quickly that pleasing us gets them really good things. But for the most part dogs are very much "What’s in it for me?" creatures. The other problem that comes up is them knowing exactly what it is that we want of them. We aren't always clear to our dogs and if they don't understand what we are asking of them they cannot react appropriately. If they don't understand us, and we punish them for not reacting the way we want, well that hardly seems fair does it?

In training circles there are two general camps of thought on training. One camp uses physical force to get the dog into the position they want or to stop them from doing a behavior. The dog has no choices and doesn't learn what we prefer them to do.  They are only prevented from doing things we don't want or forced into doing what we do want. One problem with this method is that we are thinking for the dog. This means that we have to manage the dog 100% of the time. If we aren't there to make the choices for the dog they will fall back into the habits we don't like.

The other camp uses the paycheck as a reward for doing the behavior they want from the dog to begin with. This increases the probability that the dog will want to repeat that behavior. Behavior that is ignored, or has no value for the dog, generally stops. The question you need to ask yourself if your dog is doing something you dislike is; what are they getting from doing the behavior? If they are getting ANY positive attention at all then that behavior will continue. (I mean positive in the dogs' perception. For some dogs even negative attention is positive.)

With force training physical corrections are used as punishment which can cause mistrust of us on the part of the dog. Sometimes it is because we are not always clear about what we are asking of them before the correction. While dogs do sometimes correct each other physically, they do so for clear infractions of their species specific behavior. They are also fair in those corrections which are understandable to each other. Humans are not always as clear or fair. Physical corrections done incorrectly can also hurt our dogs. No one wants that. In positive reinforcement other non-physical punishments are used that are both clear to the dog we are trying to communicate with, and non violent.

Positive doesn't equal permissive. We also teach by using consequences. That can be as simple as withdrawing our attention from them or using time outs at the moment of the infraction. (To be most effective a time out needs to be 2 minutes or less with the dog being brought back to try again.) We do not use food for everything, nor should we. There are 5 ways we can praise our dogs, food is only one of those.

Touching, speaking in a happy tone, smiling, play and food treats are the most common 5 ways we can praise our dogs. Because touch is a form of praise this is one reason pushing a dog off you to teach no jumping isn't always effective. Verbal praise can be as simple as the word Yes! used as a reward marker (in place of a clicker) or as drawn out as Good Dog! in a happy tone. Tone of voice is very important if you want your words to be considered praise. Because dogs communicate with body posture and facial expressions they learn to read ours very quickly. This is why smiling is also a form of praise. Food as praise is pretty self explanatory. For most dogs food is their currency. This is how they prefer to be paid. Of course for other dogs play is more interesting than food. Play can be high value for many high prey drive dogs. None of these are mutually exclusive either. The good news is that you can use multiple forms of praise at once!

Whatever your dogs' currency is, the beginning of training means you need to ask the dog to do something BEFORE you produce the paycheck. When they do what you ask the paycheck is delivered. The exception to this rule is if you are using the ball or food as a lure to teach the dog (or puppy) the position you want their body in. For instance if they don't know the meaning of the word "sit", we can't expect them to be successful at it if we ask for it. (And repeating the word a bunch of times will only train them to not do it the first time we ask, not explain what the word means to them.) Instead we simply use a treat in front of their nose and raise it slowly up and back over the dogs head so it is uncomfortable to do anything other than sit. Say the verbal cue "sit" AS they are successful so they learn the meaning of the word. Then say Yes! and Treat. (The reward mark word Yes! means the paycheck is coming.)

I hope this helps explain what training with food is supposed to be. Most problems in training stem from poor communication. Once you bridge that gap it gets so much easier for both you and your dog. Good luck and happy training!

*If you want to learn more about lure reward training check out the book " How to teach a new dog old tricks" by Ian Dunbar. For more information on training using a clicker (or verbal marker) check out "The thinking dog" by Gail Tamases Fisher or the video "The power of training dogs with markers" at

Marie Finnegan
K-9 Solutions Dog Training, Inc.

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