Bribery Is Against The Law
I cannot tell you how many times I come across people who really struggle with their dog “only listening when he sees that I have a treat.” I also constantly hear the same warning from people who are against using treats, “if you use treats to train, your dog will only work for the treat.” The truth in these statements is that it is absolutely possible to accidentally train a dog to only listen when they see the payout–but that is due to improper training skills and not just the use of treats.
The problem is that people try to bribe their dog to perform the behaviors. There is a fine, although very clear, line between a bribe and a reward. A bribe happens before the action occurs and is an unwritten quid pro quo agreement–a customer sneaks $20 in the hand of a maitre d during a handshake to ensure a prime table or to skip ahead in the line OR a handler shows the dog a treat and then asks for a behavior. A reward happens after the behavior occurs and is not always guaranteed–an usher at a baseball game helps you find your seat, wipes it down for you and you hand him a few dollars as you make your way to your seat OR you cue your dog to lay on their bed out of the kitchen and then toss him a treat from your pocket after he has responded. They are similar but they are very very different. We want to be working with rewards and never bribes–remember bribery is illegal!
I’m sad to say that I’ve actually heard ‘professional’ trainers giving advice that will lead to a dog learning to only respond when they see the treat beforehand. It’s quite unfortunate because the best protection from creating a dog who only works for bribes is never bribing a dog in the first place. Here are some simple tips to prevent your pup from only working for treats when they can see them. It is much harder to fix training problems that develop because a dog is only reliable when the handler bribes the dog. It is possible to improve the reliability but it can be quite the challenge and it takes a lot of time and commitment.
How to prevent your dog from needing to be bribed… (besides the obvious, “Don’t Bribe them”)
1. Do not use food to lure your dog more than a few times when teaching a new behavior. I will lure 3 or 4 times and then try to fake them out, if they go for the fake-out I don’t go back to treats in my hand during that session (I may start with a food lure once during the next one to get them going). IF the dog doesn’t go for the fake out, I will cue another known behavior, reward that with a treat and then lure the other behavior a few more times before testing out the fake out. What I do not want to do is try the fake-out, fail at the fake out, and immediately put a treat in my hand and try again with the food lure.
2. During training, use a treat pouch or other device to keep your hands empty but treats easily accesible (especially early on in training). If you need to be able to feed very quickly, keep the treats in a closed hand either behind your back or held to your abdomen.
3. Keep treats hidden around your home in ziploc bags or plastic containers so you have a way to reinforce behaviors without having any treats on your person. Ask for a behavior while on the way to another room in the house, mark it “yes!” (or click or whatever), and pull a treat from out of nowhere to reward your pup.
4. If you are using a handsignal, do so with your hand empty!
5. Under no circumstances should you intentionally show your dog the treat before you ask for a behavior–ESPECIALLY after they’ve ignored you. Dogs quickly learn to ignore you when you don’t have a treat because they’ve learned that you will then go get a treat, show it to them, and then ask for the same behavior.
6. Become the master of faking it. I will put my hand in my treat pouch, make some noise with the treats, take my hand out pretending to have a treat in my hand, take my invisible treat to my mouth and make fake eating noises, and THEN cue the behavior. Once the dog does the behavior, I make a big deal about showing them my empty hand before getting them the treat (*having to do this more than twice says to me that my criteria is too high or the environment too distracting and I need to modify the situation).
7. Use more capturing or shaping to teach new skills since it’s much more challenging to both bribe and capture/shape a behavior.
With all of these you want to set yourself up for success. If you never bribe your dog in the first place, it will not become a problem later on.
How to resolve the problem of a dog who only works for bribes…
1. No more showing the dog a treat before cueing a behavior.
2. Become the master of faking it (see number 6 of previous list).
3. You can start the process by having the treats visible but not in your hand–so you have a clear cup with kibble next to you while you ask for behaviors. As you are successful, move the cup out of sight and start using an opaque container. You can also start moving the container farther away.
4. When using hand signals, keep your gesturing hand empty!
5. If you are struggling to get compliance without a visible treat, go to the most boring environment you can think of to start your work.
6. If you are still struggling in the very boring environment to get reliable behaviors from your pup without a treat in your hand, and you “have to” put the treat in your hand, cue the behavior, when the pup complies, give verbal praise, petting or play, but NO TREAT. Slyly put the treat away while throwing the party and then cue the behavior a second time in rapid succession (with no treat in your hand), most dogs will comply again, this time show your empty hand and then reward with a treat or two. Food in the hand = no food reward. No food in hand=potential food reward.
7. If your cues/training has been really poisoned with bribery, it may actually be easier to start from scratch and start re-training behaviors with new cues and handsignals.
Dogs are smart and they know what works. They can very easily learn to ignore you the first time you give a cue (with an empty hand) because you will get a treat and bribe them the next time. The moral of the story is to be careful not to bribe your dogs, it only leads to trouble.