What are we really teaching our dogs?
Do you ever feel like all you do is bribe your dog with food? You want him to come to you so you grab a tasty treat and wave it around until he notices and comes running for it? You want him to drop the sock in his mouth so you get a piece of chicken and tempt him with that? Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t … how frustrating is that! You might even wish he would just do what you ask him to simply because you spend your life providing for him and he should really have a bit more loyalty and love for you!!
Dogs have their own needs, their own priorities and their own ways of thinking. They may love us and be bonded to us but it doesn’t change the fact that they have different motivations in life.
Dogs find reinforcement everywhere, it could be chasing the squirrel in the park, sniffing every piece of grass or, maybe most annoyingly, barking! Sometimes we can easily outweigh these motivations, but other times we can end up in what feels like a battle of wills.
We all have our own hierarchies of motivation, some people will be driven more by money, but for others it’s relationships, or success at work. Motivations aren’t static, they can change daily, hourly or across lifetimes. For example, if you’ve just eaten a big meal, being asked to do something in exchange for food probably won’t cut it. Or if you’ve just won the lottery you probably wouldn’t worry about skipping work and losing your pay for a few days!
This is exactly the same for dogs and it’s the reason why we can’t always get a response from them. We quickly label our dogs as ‘stubborn’ or as having ‘selective hearing’ but really, it’s all a matter of motivation and priorities. If you’re waving a treat in front of your dog’s face when he’s just seen a squirrel in the park, his priority is unlikely to be the food… in that moment his only care is for the squirrel.
Similarly, if he knows what he’s going to get from you then he will know whether or not it’s worth his energy immediately. In human terms, you may not mind working longer hours once in a while in return for a grateful thank you and no extra pay, but if this started to happen every day, you would soon get frustrated and question it. Likewise, a dog may come back a few times when you call him and receive a ‘good boy’ and pat on the head, but he will soon tire of this and its value will be easily outweighed by other things.
It gets frustrating when your dog will only listen to you if they know you have something for them, using food as an example, he knows you have a treat so he will sit, lie down, spin around and do anything you ask, but when you don’t have that treat in your hand, or you have a ‘boring’ treat he looks at you blankly and walks away. ‘What’s the point’, he says, and you scream in frustration, ‘WHY won’t he just listen to me!?’
This is the unfortunate result of bribing your dog. When working with rewards in training, we can become so reliant on showing the dog what we have and then asking them to do something, it works well in the early stages of training but you need to quickly phase out this bribe so your dog isn’t dependent on it. You should never aim to remove food rewards completely; they will always be an important motivator but you can reduce the dependency.
A few simple changes can make a big difference…
Stop waving the treat in his face
Don’t show the reward until after your dog has performed the behaviour you’ve asked for
- For example, put a treat on the table where your dog can’t see it, call him to you, tell him ‘good boy!’ and then reach for the treat and present it to him
- Without showing him a treat, ask him for a behaviour he knows well (e.g. sit). If he responds, GREAT, quickly mark it (say yes) and reward him. If he’s unable to respond then there’s a strong possibility he doesn’t understand what you’re asking him. When he knows you have a treat, he may just try a behaviour to get the reward, rather than actually performing on cue.
- In this case, you need to go back to basics and teach him the behaviours again, but without the treat acting as your bribe!
No more treats in your hand … get rid of the lure!
- Luring is helpful when teaching new behaviours but your dog can become reliant on this so rather than always holding a treat in your hand, keep it in your pocket until the behaviour has been performed
- Start by luring with a treat in your hand, but after a few repetitions, show the lure with an empty hand
- Reduce your lure by using a more subtle movement
Increase your criteria and create some behaviour chains
- Frustration tolerance is an important skill for dogs to learn, one way to improve this is to ask for several behaviours before they receive the reward
- Making your dog work a little harder for the reward will encourage him to respond faster and more reliably in order to gain the reward
- This puts more focus onto the behaviour chain and lessens the focus on the reward
Keep it varied, random and unpredictable
- When we want to create a stronger behaviour, we use a variable reinforcement schedule where the rewards come randomly and unpredictably
- In human terms, people will continually try to win on a slot machine because the intermittent reward keeps them trying … you never know if you will win 1p or £100
- For dogs, they will keep coming back to you if they know sometimes they get a piece of kibble, sometimes it’s a fuss and sometimes it’s a handful of chicken … it’s worth putting the effort in if sometimes the reward is super amazing!
- Do you find yourself giving your dog a treat every time you ask him to sit? Quite possibly not, but ‘sit’ is probably still his most reliable command? This is because you have put ‘sit’ on a variable reward schedule… there is no predictability to when the reward will come, it’s so random that he keeps offering the behaviour in hope that this time he will be rewarded.
- Of course there are criteria for this, if you reward too infrequently he will lose interest and assume it’s not worth the effort, and if he doesn’t truly understand the behaviour you’re asking for, then the concept becomes irrelevant.
- For this to work he must 1. Have a good understanding of the behaviour and 2. Be rewarded frequently enough to still feel motivated to respond
Food is not everything!
- It doesn’t always have to be food – work out what your dog finds reinforcing and use it!
- For some dogs, going through the door or into the car is a huge reward so ask him to do something first, for example, sit before he goes through the door
- Being released to go sniff or play is a great reward for many dogs, so use this to reward recall or other commands during walks
- Keep it varied though, life rewards aren’t enough all the time and they don’t work in every situation… you’re unlikely to release your dog to go chase a squirrel as a reward when you’re trying to stop this behaviour!
The Importance of Reward Delivery
We often neglect to think about WHEN and HOW we reward our dogs. The timing of a reward can make a big difference because it can influence the exact behaviour you reward, and it may not always be the one you intended. The reward can also overshadow the behaviour you have asked for. You may think your dog has listened to your ‘sit’ cue when actually he saw the treat and decided to offer the behaviour which works most often … a sit.
The order of this is so important, it must follow cue – behaviour – reward. NOT show reward – cue – show reward – behaviour – give reward!!
There is a big difference between bribing a dog and rewarding a dog. If you rely on bribery (whether accidental or intentional) you will be stuck in the trap of always having to offer your dog something before he is willing to listen to you. But if you focus on rewarding your dog then he should try harder to gain the reward, making his responses quicker, more enthusiastic and focused.
Alongside this, think about your behaviour when you deliver the reward to your dog. Your dog has just seen a squirrel run across the park, you call his name and he turns to come running to you, but when he gets to you, you reach in your pocket and hand him a treat… now what’s more exciting? The moving squirrel or the piece of food you just handed to him?
If you have a dog who will take it or leave it with food rewards then you have to work harder to make that piece of food more exciting than anything else! It doesn’t have to be complicated to add some excitement and value into a reward delivery. Movement is key for many dogs, chasing a treat across the floor, catching it in the air or following it in your moving hand can all easily add some intrigue.
Sure, there is a time and place for carefully delivered rewards, but for most of us pet-dog owners, precise reward placement is not top priority so use what you can to up the value of your reward. When done right, the actual process of taking the reward can outweigh the eating of it. You can turn the most boring piece of kibble into the most exciting event of the day.
I Don’t Want to Use Treats
This is one of the most common things I hear, followed closely by ‘when can I stop using treats?’. Unless you have a dog who is highly motivated by your attention or is willing to listen simply because he loves you, then you won’t get very far without treats!
Using your dog’s own daily food portion as rewards is the best way to make use of his food without having to worry about giving him lots of treats. It’s also a great way to increase motivation in a dog who is uninterested in food. Not all dogs are naturally foodie dogs, they will take it or leave it and willingly go several days without eating. For owners of these dogs it can be incredibly painful to be told food rewards are essential in training.
However, if your dog isn’t food motivated then it’s still no excuse, it just means your first step of training is to teach your dog to enjoy the food!
Read this previous post for more food motivation ideas https://lifewithrumer.com/2020/05/02/but-my-dog-doesnt-like-food/
And as a quick summary…
- Ditch the bowl. Eating from a bowl is boring. It doesn’t help your training and it’s easy to get rid of so ditch it
- Food comes from you. You are now the source of food. Be creative with it
- Hand feed. Use food to reward your dog for behaviours he knows or for doing nothing. Hand feeding can be fun – you can throw the food for your dog to chase or catch, or play hide-and-seek with it
- Changing how you offer food can change how your dog feels about it, it should always be fun to eat and ideally it should be associated with you
Working with dogs who lack motivation for food can be more challenging but I am yet to meet a dog who can’t be converted to enjoy it, it just takes a little more time and patience!
At Adolescent Dogs we are passionate about reward-based training and we have years of experience with building food motivation and finding each dog’s individual motivations. We love to train our dogs using the things that motivate them most!