Weaning Off Of Treats
One of the first things that many students ask me is about when they can “stop using all the treats.” I will be honest and say that for most behaviors, I don’t completely wean off treats. Yup, you heard that correctly. There are some environments and situations where the dogs rarely get treats and other environments where getting treats isn’t uncommon.
I think what people are often really looking for is a dog who will reliably respond without needing a treat. There is a difference between a dog who won’t respond unless there is food in the mix and a dog who gets paid for their work periodically. At my house, the dogs really don’t get treats for their behaviors except for recalling from barking at the fence, when we are training skills, or with some stressful circumstances. Sure they sit or down when we are giving out treats, but they aren’t rewarded for most of their in-home behaviors with food–I can’t even remember the last time they were rewarded for a sit, down, stay, or leave it while at home. When I’m out and about, I have no problems with carrying food with me and rewarding behaviors that I like from my dogs. You betcha I’m going to reward Rio for loose leash walking through huge crowds at the Pittsburgh Regatta. I’ve spent enough time training him and building up to that type of environment that the rewards came pretty slowly–but they still happened. Could he have behaved wonderfully without treats? Based on other situations where I didn’t have treats handy? Yes, but I want to pay him for his efforts because even if the pay doesn’t happen often, it will help maintain the behavior in those high distraction situations..
This idea of maintaining behavior brings me back to the topic at hand, there is a effective way to wean off of treats and there is a way to wean off the treats that can make a behavior completely break down. Many people fall into the trap of heavily reinforcing behavior during beginning training, and then cutting out nearly all of the treats cold turkey once the dog “knows it”. This, my friends, is how a behavior can be extinguished. Reward a behavior for a while and suddenly stop rewarding it and the behavior will go away. While helpful for some behaviors (like jumping up), it’s not generally what you want to happen to all of the behaviors you’ve taught your dog.
Knowing when to wean off of treats is an important piece of the equation. I will start weaning off treats once I LOVE a behavior (it’s as precise as I’d like it to be) and is 95% reliable in a given environment, in a specific situation, and with 1 cue. This means that while I may start weaning off treats at home, I may not be weaning off treats while out at the park simultaneously–it all depends on the reliability of the behavior in that environment. It is quite likely that a behavior will be reliable and precise at home or a training facility well before it’s precise and reliable in a high distraction environment. Many people run into the problem of weaning off treats either before the behavior is precise enough for them or before the behavior is truly reliable (1 cue, fast response, etc). Here are my words to the wise: removing rewards from shaky behaviors does not make them stronger.
The basic idea when weaning off of treats is to become a slot machine instead of a predictable change machine (the machine that exchanges your dollar bills to quarters). To start you will be a slot machine with a very high rate of “winners” and will reduce the percentage of winners as the dog’s behavior remains reliable. When I start weaning from food rewards, my dog will win 80% of the time–basically I reward 8 out of every 10 behaviors that I cue. It doesn’t matter which behaviors in the set that I reward, but being pretty random is important (so not in a pattern of reward 4, skip 1, reward 4, skip one). There are a few ways to be consistent with this–one of the ways is to take out 8 treats but ask for 10 behaviors and another way I’ve done it is to pick out 10 treats and when there is a behavior I don’t reward, I set that treat aside instead of feeding it to my pup. The other thing I do during this time is to utilize life rewards, toy rewards, and interactive rewards instead of food rewards in a more conscious manner.
If my dog is still 95% reliable with a slot machine paying out 80% of the time, I will reduce the percentage down to 70% and repeat the process using 7 treats for 10 behaviors. I will keep reducing the percentage of behaviors that result in food rewards as long as the behavior remains reliable. I will never sacrifice fewer food rewards for a decrease in reliability–what use is being able to say “my dog doesn’t need food rewards” if your dog is only reliable 50% of the time (with 1 cue and with a quick response).
Weaning down the number of treats can really either make or break a behavior. If done correctly, a behavior will actually become even stronger and more reliable. However, if not done correctly, a behavior can be extinguished or be really broken down. So, while it seems a bit over the top methodical, it’s beneficial in the long run to take your time when reducing the number of treats you use!