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Using Treats: Bribe or Bonus?

How you use rewards determines if your pet is a crook or employee of the month.

Source: Sueda

By Karen Sueda, DVM, Dipl. ACVB

Pet owners are often reluctant to use food rewards for training because they fear that eventually their pet won’t listen to them unless they have a treat. Admittedly, this is often the case. You are not alone if you have bemoaned the fact that your dog is perfect when he knows you are clutching a piece of chicken but acts deaf when you give him a command without a treat in hand. Your dog’s selective hearing may be due to the way you reward him rather than the type of reward you use.

Bribe or Bonus Check?

If your dog knows the command but will not perform it unless a treat is present, then the treat is being used as a “bribe.” Dogs that do not follow commands until they see an imminent reward have learned that their owners will ultimately give in and offer a treat to ensure compliance. To thwart these criminal masterminds, be prepared to end negotiations by walking away. Your dog’s demand for the “bribe” in this situation results in loss of both the treat and your attention. After a few minutes, issue the command again. He will be more likely to follow the command and you should only reward him with the treat after the desired behavior is performed.

Ideally, treats are used as rewards or “bonuses” for a job well done. Once your dog knows the command well, you don’t need to reward every performance. Instead, offer a high-value treat intermittently or when the task was especially difficult. For example, you do not need to offer your dog a treat every time he comes when you call; rewarding him with a treat once every four or five times may suffice. However, if you call him to you when he is barking at a squirrel and he actually complies? That deserves a “bonus”!

Treats Aren’t the Only Benefits of the Job

Treats (or food) are only one of many rewards you may use with your dog. Any object or activity your dog enjoys may be used, such as toys, walks, attention, a car ride, etc. For example, require your dog to sit before you open the car door to take him for a ride or require him to lie down before you throw the ball. Varying the type of reward the dog receives and rewarding your dog on an intermittent basis is the best way to keep a dog compliant because he never knows what kind of reward he will receive or when the next treat may come. This is the same reason why Las Vegas is so successful!

Pat on the Back or a Bonus Check?

Many owners want their dog to follow commands solely for praise rather than treats, toys, or other material rewards. Unfortunately for their dog, this is equivalent to going to the mailbox hoping for a bonus check and instead finding a note saying “Good Job!” Whether you (or your dog) decide to keep performing the job for acknowledgement and praise alone depends on the difficulty of the task and individual motivation.

For many dogs, attention alone is not motivating enough to serve as sole reward. This is partially due to the fact that most dogs receive their owner’s attention whenever they want it and without working for it. Treats are rewarding because they are not typically available on demand; the same is true of car rides, walks, and other material rewards. However, most dogs receive attention on demand. You may absentmindedly pet your dog whenever he puts his head on your lap or nudges you with his nose—sucker! If your dog receives your attention whenever he wants it, why should he have to work for it?

Increase the value of your attention by limiting the supply. Withhold attention when your dog nudges, paws, or barks at you by ignoring him and walking away. Provide attention as a reward only after your dog sits or follows a command. This does not mean that your dog will receive less attention; he will get lots of attention as long as he “says please” by following your instruction first.

Treats are not the enemy nor are they the only thing you can use to train your dog. How you reward your dog may be more important than what you use to reward him.

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