Dog Training Is Not Dog Bribing
In this how-to NOT bribe your dog when training guide I’ll cover:
- Common Dog Training Problems
- Learning Theory Basics
- Should I Use Food To Train My Dog?
- How to use Food Correctly When Dog Training
- How To Use A Food Lure Correctly
- Reconditioning a Dog That Only Responds To Treats (Step By Step)
- Additional Dog Training Tips
- The Most Effective Dog Training Technique You’re Not Practicing
- Dog Bribing Summary
Parents need help when using food with dog training. Los Angeles parents sometimes resort to bribing a dog with food to behave.
To begin with, “bribing” your dog is the wrong word since it connotes nefarious or illegal activity. Also, the use of the term bribery when describing heterospecific (dog-human) relationships is a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the laws of learning and more generally how animals and life work.
Most human and nonhuman animals (hereinafter called animals) perform behaviors because of some benefit.
The real issue is not bribery, but the frustration that comes from being ignored by your dog unless you have a treat in your hand. We can call it compliance, obedience or something else, but it’s fundamentally a communication issue.
This much larger communication and training issue will be addressed in this article which will lead to a compliant dog that listens to you.
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Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?
- Your dog only becomes compliant once the refrigerator door opens up, or when you are in the kitchen?
- Your dog only behaves when you have food in your hand or when you open the cookie jar?
- Your dog perks up only when you reach for something rewarding like a dog leash, kitchen cabinet or treat pouch?
You’re not alone. On a personal note, when I was a kid, once I strapped on my dog training pouch, opened up a bag of dog treats or went to feed my dog their food, he sat like a world-class obedience champion.
But that’s not what anyone wants. If you need to have a treat in your hand for your dog to sit, lie down or stand, you are bribing your dog and not training.
In this article, I’ll teach you how to transition from dog bribing to dog training. AKA, listening and complying through conditioning, the love of pleasing you and the activity itself.
All animals and people want to be rewarded for behaviors, but understandably parents don’t have dog treats with them 24/7 and don’t want to have to feed a dog every single time they ask their dog to do something.
Notice I said, “‘every single time”, and not, always, never or don’t want to at all.
Even if a parent can’t food reward a dog every single time, you should still reward a dog with high-value food rewards very often (every day). Just as we go to work to get rewarded ($$$). And just because we don’t want to have to reward our dogs with food every time they do something that we want, we still have to reward them in other ways!
We get our dog to listen to us without waiving a treat in front of his face, through intermittent variable reward schedules, the use of environmental rewards and many iterations (conditioning).
But first, a dog needs to learn by luring him with high-value food rewards and rewarding him every single time, before phasing out the lure and transitioning to a variable intermittent reward schedule and the use of environmental rewards.
Food is vital for classical conditioning and obedience training. However, training your dog with life rewards and disassociating food from rewards will help move your dog away from a food-only reward system.
I have heard many confused dog “trainers” state you shouldn’t use treats or dog food during training. This confusion stems from the fact that there is no regulation in the dog training or pet services industry. Sad but true.
The answer is, Yes! You should always use food rewards when dog training. Specifically, primary reinforcer high-value food rewards. You don’t have to use food every single time you want to reward your dog but you need to use food as an integral part of your reward system. Dog training is fun, and if it isn’t fun you’re doing something wrong.
On a side note, it’s funny to hear the suggestion that feeding a dog treats for training is a problem. Why wouldn’t a dog inherently want to work for rewards? All animals do including people. Most people don’t show up to work because they love it, they do so because of monetary rewards.
Dog treats and food are monetary rewards for a dog. That’s why a dog ‘shows up’ and performs work. It’s not rocket science.
To elaborate on the sometimes subtle and overlapping differences between work vs. play or doing something we want vs. something we don’t want, consider these analogies.
Your favorite hobby or sport, whether you enjoy chess, sewing, running, yoga, meditation, playing cards, tennis, soccer or skiing, you do these activities because you enjoy them.
Not because someone offers you a cookie or money. You perform activities for the inherent love for the sport, hobby or activity. The activity itself is what gives you great joy, fulfillment, and satisfaction.
Perhaps it is the Zen tranquility of losing yourself in the act of doing. Maybe it is the meditative aspect and visceral aspect where the monkey mind and waterfall of thoughts settle. Or maybe you engage in a fun event because you get to spend time with your friends.
It’s not so different for dogs. Dogs do activities for both the inherent love of the activity and the work aspect because they get paid (AKA get rewarded for doing them). However, by using high-value food rewards when training your dog, it makes both work and play overlap and clear to a dog that the activity/behavior is fun and rewarding.
Then when the behavior becomes generalized and conditioned through thousands of iterations we transition a dog to many other reward systems.
These other reward systems behaviorists call environmental/life rewards. Dog’s do what “works” to get rewarded and payment comes in all sorts of rewards in addition to, dog treats and food.
However, your dog first must begin to learn a behavior with a food lure before adding in other types of rewards. But quickly after using the food lure, after one or two trials, you will transition your dog to responding to your body language, and then your voice and not the food lure.
This is the art and science of being a great dog trainer.
When training a dog with a new behavior or in a new environment follow these four easy steps.
1) Cue (Request)
2) Lure (Food)
3) Response (Your dog’s behavior)
4) Reward (High-value food reward)
Then, immediately after your first or second trial remove #2 Lure, from the equation.
The training process would then look like this.
1) Cue (Request)
2) Response (Your dog’s behavior)
3) Reward (High-value food reward)
Pro Tip: Reintroduce the, #2 Food Lure, for any new environment or new behavior. Remember this when you are generalizing your dog’s behaviors.
Your dog will naturally follow your hand with the food in it. Place the treat in between your thumb and the top of your index finger and then in front of your dog’s nose. Now, slowly guide your dog into position. Your dog’s nose will follow your hand. This is how you will shape your dog into a position without force or physical manipulation.
However, if you keep using food to lure your dog into position for more than one or two trials, he will begin to work only when the food is present and not from your hand signal (or verbal signal) by itself. This is why we fade the lure immediately and do not hold food in our gesturing hand or show a dog food when luring a dog into position or requesting a behavior after the first or second iteration.
Instead hold the food in your other hand behind your back, ready to immediately treat your dog.
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If your dog has a long conditioned history of being bribed and only listening to you when you have food in your hand, the process of reconditioning or training a dog using the same cue may take longer than making up a new cue. Similar to the instructions for poisoning a dog’s cue. Sometimes it’s more helpful, a quicker and easier process to create an entirely new cue rather than trying to change the meaning of a previously bribed or poisoned cue.
Whichever route you decide I’ll walk you through both training options.
Option #1 Training With A New Cue
Making up an entirely new cue is easy. For example, if I previously asked my dog to Sit using the obvious cue, “Sit”. Now I would make up an entirely new verbal cue (and body language/gestural cue). This new unconditioned cue will likely be easier for a dog to understand than using the old conditioned cue (Sit) that you bribed him with.
Training would look like this.
- First, teach your dog how to Sit with a new gestural cue. By following my previous, “How To Use Food Correctly When Training A Dog” section
For example, if I was using my right arm bent at a 90-degree angle, with my right hand opened flat, horizontally, with my palm towards the sky, as a cue to sit.
Now I could change my gestural cue to my pointer/index finger pointing vertically down to the floor, or any other gestural cue I want to use.
- Then after your dog is correctly responding to the new gestural cue 8 out of 10 times, proceed to introduce the new verbal cue.
- For the new verbal cue, make up any one-word cue for Sit that you will remember. It can be something fun like “Bum,” “Tush,” “Ass,” or any word you will remember.
- Then proceed again to follow my, “How To Use Food Correctly When Training A Dog” section
The key to pairing two cues together, a new and old cue, is to do so in under one second and also to make sure that first, your dog is sitting on cue at least 8 out of 10 times before transitioning to the new (verbal) cue.
You might remember this by the acronym NO. Which stands for New cue before Old cue.
Now your dog is bilingual!
Option #2 Training With The Same Cue
Training techniques for dogs that only respond to food in your hand is different in a few ways.
If I wanted to use the same cue “Sit” that I used when I bribed my dog, I would simply start training from the beginning, as if my dog was a beginner and never trained this behavior before.
Follow the same instructions in Option #1 above for a New Cue but using the food lure is where we’ll have to get creative.
Since your dog has been conditioned to only listen when you’re holding a treat, we’ll need to try some sleight-of-hand trickery to make sure our dog understands he is performing a behavior without anything in your hand. There are a few ways to do this.
- Start with some moist smelly high-value training treats in your dog training pouch treats that your dog loves. Hotdogs or smelly people food works great. Just be careful to not feed your dog dangerous foods.
Go to an appropriate boring environment with your dog where there are very few distractions (bathroom, guest room, hallway, etc.)
Then dip your hand into your treat bag (which should be placed on your pants/belt, behind your back) but instead of grabbing a treat, rub your fingers all over the treats to make your fingers smell like a treat. The smellier your fingers get the better this will work.
Then proceed to hand gesture your dog to sit with the same gesture he already knows and that you were using when bribing him. The art of this gesture will be allowing your dog to smell your hand long enough to think there is something delicious in it but not long enough to realize there is nothing in your hand.
Then as soon as your dog’s butt hits the ground, open your hand and fingers, like a magician and show him there was nothing in your hand. As your dog looks at you in astonishment, immediately give him high-value treats with your other hand (that should have been at the ready, behind your back).
You should also do this while verbally marking his butt hitting the ground with an excited,” Yes!” then immediately toss him a treat.
The key is to immediately open your hand and show your dog that nothing was in your luring hand and then to immediately reward him with food with your other hidden hand.
Do this several times and each time make your fingers smell less like the hotdog treats.
- If you are outside with your dog, and you know your dog wants to sniff a tree, go to a field or play with a dog, simply stop and wait for him to offer a sit or to look at you. When he does, mark that behavior with a food reward or better yet, the life reward of doing whatever it was that your dog wanted to do.
This has several advantages. If you use the life rewards system, it disassociates food completely from the reward system.
And if you decide to use a treat to reward him, it also breaks the cycle of you having to bribe your dog into a position, or ask your dog to do something. You simply be patient and wait for your dog to offer the behavior.
Caveat: If you are too close to the stimulus, (dog, park, etc.) and your dog is too excited, it will be difficult for your dog to calm down and focus on you. Simply creating distance or stopping well before you get to a point of overexcitement will be a more ideal place to practice this technique.
Here are some pro tips for what we have discussed so far.
Pro Tip 1: Always begin training using body language/gesture cues before verbal cues since most dogs respond to body langue before verbal. Also, because verbal inflection and prose are confusing to a dog especially when mixing in multiple people.
Pro Tip 2: You might notice that as soon as you get to the place where you will train your dog, he sits automatically. If this is the case immediately, capture that behavior (more on how to capture behavior below) and mark the sitting behavior with a click, or a verbal, “Yes!” and immediately toss a high value treat away from your dog so that he has to get up from his sit to retrieve the food.
Tossing the treat away from your dog after each sit behavior is purposeful to naturally activate your dog to stand up. This creates another opportunity for us to teach a dog to sit.
Instead, if we delivered dog treats directly to his mouth while he was sitting, we would have far fewer opportunities to practice sitting and would have to move our dog around each time and prompt him to get up each time. Having a training plan and tossing treats away from your dog after each sit iteration makes training much easier and quicker.
Caveat: However, if I were teaching Stay, I would not practice tossing treats and would instead deliver treats directly to a dog’s mouth.
If you simply pull out your treat bag or you train your dog at the same hour every day, your dog makes the association and knows it is time for his treats. You must desensitize and habituate the treat bag and treats and vary things up.
Pro Tip 3: Generalize dog training sessions to all areas of your dog’s life and transition to environmental rewards. When we reward dogs with something other than food, the behavior becomes fluent, proofed and generalized.
Pro Tip 4: Environmental rewards that most dogs love are sniffing a tree, meeting other dogs or people, digging, retrieving, going outside for walks, tugging on a rope, playing with you, a ball chase, a belly rub, being silly together. All of these are rewarding and of high value to your pup.
Work these environmental life rewards into your training sessions with or without your dog’s food treats. Also, switch it up and leave your treat bag at home sometimes.
Instead, put some treats in random places out of reach from your dog around the house and in your pockets so that they are easily and readily accessible.
You want your dog to think treats are raining from the sky whenever he performs a behavior pleasing to you.
Pro Tip 5: Desensitize your dog by training at a variety of times, in all different environments. If you leave treats in your pocket all day your pup never knows when he may get a treat and they are more compliant throughout the day.
We desensitize a dog because otherwise if you walk over to the cookie jar, or start training every day at the same time, or strap your treat bag around your waist, you will cue the dog signals to only be compliant when you are near treats or during those specific situations.
Pro Tip 6: Have your pup say “please” by sitting before you go for your dog walk when your front door opens, then when you get to curbs and when you stop.
Every time you stop, wait patiently for your pup to sit, making eye contact, and then reward him by marking that behavior with a click, or verbal, “Yes!”, and continue your walk. Sitting cues the reward of a continued walk, or maybe a sniff by the tree, or romp around in the park with his pup friends.
Having your dog work and say please for these types of rewards help cultivate the relationship you want with your dog so your dog is not sitting only when you have a treat in your hand.
Pro Tip 7: After your dog is reliably sitting, start to place him on a variable reinforcement schedule to strengthen his behaviors. You will notice his precision accuracy and speed will improve and his latency will decrease. Keep on increasing criteria and the three D’s of dog training – Duration, Distance and Distraction – after each iteration and offer lesser value treats for OK performances and higher value treats for excellent behaviors or sequences of behaviors.
Putting your dog on a variable reinforcement schedule keeps him guessing (and learning) when and how they will get rewarded. It will also mean that you can vary what treats you give your dog. It doesn’t have to be food all the time after your dog is more fluent and the behavior is generalized.
Lastly, I have eluded to it but not mentioned it specifically. The most effective and underused dog training technique is capturing a dog’s behavior.
Capturing a behavior extinguishes a bribe because you are not asking for a behavior and are not showing a dog any food.
Capturing a dog’s behavior is probably the easiest and most overlooked dog training technique by parents and trainers alike. It is also the most effective dog training technique because a dog chooses to offer these behaviors naturally and hence learns them quicker!
Capturing a behavior is simply rewarding good behavior that your dog naturally offers without you prompting/cueing him. When capturing a behavior, immediately and contingently give a high-value food reward after a dog performs the desired behavior.
What’s the desired behavior? Any behavior you like or want from your dog.
Here are some examples of desired dog behaviors.
- Your dog chooses to walk next to you on a loose leash while on a dog walk.
- Your dog chooses to sit down when you stop or are at a curb before you cross the street.
- Your dog chooses to go to their dog crate.
- Your dog chooses to go to their bed and rest.
- Your dog chooses to come over to you.
- Your dog chooses to make eye contact with you.
- Your nervous, insecure or fearful dog choose to relax.
- Your dog chooses to be quiet instead of barking all day.
- Your dog chooses to chew a dog chew toy instead of biting you, your clothes or furniture.
- Your dog chooses not to be impulsive and doesn’t react aggressively towards a skateboard or another dog.
The list is endless. When a dog chooses they realize they have control over their environment and that their choices can make great things happen! Capturing behaviors not only promotes a well-behaved dog but independent thinking and problem-solving.
And since we don’t have to do a thing other than to be prepared with high-value food reward treats I call it the lazy man’s training.
Just sit back and observe our dog without saying anything. It’s is a dream come true.
If you’re like me and love watching your dogs and cats all day, this is the laziest but easiest and most effective way of pet training. But the best part is it’s as just as effective if not MORE effective than asking your dog for a behavior or teaching them to do something I want rather than what already comes naturally to a dog and that they want.
Since a pet is already going to behave in certain ways naturally, take advantage of this!
Pro Tip: Want to teach your dog to play bow on cue, simply wait until you wake up in the morning or after your dog’s nap and the chances are your dog will offer bows and stretches naturally. That’s your opportunity to capture those behaviors, put them on cue and reward him heavily. Before you know it, your dog will be offering a polite play bow on cue to dogs, people and whoever you want. Yoga dog!
We treat pets like family and training is a lifestyle, just like staying healthy and in shape requires a regular, consistent routine.
It is critical to practice your dog’s training skills daily to keep your dog happy and fulfilled.
The more you practice and incorporate dog training classes and these ideas into your life, the more this will become a lifestyle for you and your dog and will create great habits instead of your dog only being compliant around the cookie jar or refrigerator.
See how we can help you with your dog if he has been bribed in the past. We are certified experts in dog training. Fill out this short form for an expert certified dog behaviorist and trainer to help you with your dog’s behavior and training today.
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