Monday, August 29, 2016

Training with Food: Bribe or Reinforcer?

There is a myth based on bad dog training these days that says "using food is bribery"!  The truth is, food should be a reinforcer, it's all about the timing of when the food is used. The reason your dog might refuse to perform for you without food is because s/he's used to seeing the reward beforehand. Make sure the timing of your food reward is correct!

Some people think that dogs should find working for their humans inherently rewarding!  When you think about it, that's a pretty silly notion. It is true that dogs and humans have lived side-by-side for quite a long time and as a result, are well suited to work together.  However the idea that this relationship is so one-sided that a dog will perform for no tangible reward makes no sense and is really just anthropomorphism (the attribution of human characteristics). It sounds really nice but sorry folks, it's not realistic. 

Some believe that dogs should just work for praise, that dogs find praise inherently rewarding. While some dogs actually do find praise rewarding, it is possible to condition praise as a reinforcer, but the idea that all dogs are eager to work for just a pat on the head or a "good dog" is more like a fantasy than a reality.

The truth is that food is just another tool -- the most commonly used reinforcer for trainers that emphasize positive reinforcement for a simple reason: it's nearly always the "greatest common denominator".

If you use training treats wisely, they will be out of the training picture pretty quickly, and then only used as a random reward once the behavior is trained. Once a dog understands and is performing a particular behavior consistently, it is time to wean off the training treats by moving to a schedule of random reinforcement (that's a fancy way of saying "s/he gets rewarded every now and then")  or as I call it "the slot machine effect".  Additionally handlers will be substituting life rewards such as the door opening for a walk, or the bowl being placed on the floor for dinner, the leash being attached to a sitting dog for a walk.

The idea that training with treats leads to handlers walking around with treats in their pockets 24 hours a day is really just a myth based on a poor understanding of how good dog training works.

Nearly every trained animal you see on tv and in zoos has been taught using food lures and rewards.  Ever watch a walrus clap his "hands" for a small fish?   Let's not discriminate against our dogs. Isn't it appropriate for our best canine friends to have equal opportunity with the rest of the trained animal kingdom? Bottom line, reinforce, don't bribe you dog.

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