pets: The logic behind using treats as incentives when training a dog
Amy Samida | Contributor
There are so many ways to train a dog, many of them good -- which is great in that if you don't click with one trainer, you can find someone else who is willing to give you and your dog a shot. You just have to make sure that whomever you work with improves the relationship you have with your dog as well as the dog's behavior. That's what a good trainer does. When you train your dog, you start relating to each other on a different level. They understand you better, you become more of a team. One major way trainers differ is in whether or not they use treats when training, and if so, how they use them.
Most of us go to work and, at the end of the day, expect that we'll be paid for it. I'm probably not the only one whose quality of work would suffer if I didn't get that monetary reward. That's the major reason I choose to use treats for training. Plus it's a way of saying: You did a good job. I like that and want you to be happy to do it again, cutting across any language barriers that may exist.
A verbal reward is great, but it's not a big incentive. It doesn't always work if you're asking your dog to do something it doesn't really want to do, which leaves you in the position of punishment for not doing the behavior, rather than rewarding your dog for a job well done. If your dog has a special toy he really likes, that can be a fabulous reward as well, and is really ideal, but not all dogs are toy motivated. Expecting our dogs to do anything just because we asked/told them to is asking a little much, I think.
When training with treats, there are a few things to remember. One is that it's easy to use the treat as a lure. You want your dog to sit, you hold the treat over and slightly behind the dog's head, chances are the dog is going to sit. You've just lure trained your dog.
I've worked with many, many dogs who would do anything their person asked them to, as long as that person was holding a treat. This, my friends, is not a trained dog. If you are going to use the treat as a lure, you have to fade it quickly. Add the command word at the start of training, and after you've given the dog a chance to learn the basic action, start to fade the lure. I'm not a fan of lure training, for the reason I stated above. Our dogs aren't slouches. They learn whether there's a treat in your hand at lightning speed. I don't want to be in a situation where my dog doesn't come to me because I'm not standing there holding a delicious chunk of hot dog.
I use treats as a reward only. First you do the action, then you get the treat. Sometimes this can be almost simultaneous. Teaching Rocket to walk freely along beside me when he was an itty-bitty puppy (well, itty-bitty in age anyway - 25 pounds at eight weeks old isn't really what most people would consider tiny!), he got a treat almost every step. We quickly progressed to treats every five to 10 steps; it wasn't really very regimented, until he was moving along beside me for quite a distance. Now that he's got that action down, he only gets treats when I increase the difficulty, working along a busy street or where there are lots of dogs present.
Using treats when training can be a double-edged sword to some degree. You can inadvertently reward at just the wrong moment, which is why my mom's dog still raises his right foot briefly when he sits. I asked him to sit and he raised that foot. You can, without even realizing you're doing it, teach your dog to do things only when lured. You can have a dog so focused on food that he can't learn anything because all he thinks about is the treat in your pocket.
There are ways around all these problems though. I could have worked with Zachary and taught him that he needed both feet on the floor when he sits, but that brief paw raise doesn't really matter, since he's not a competition obedience dog. You can teach yourself to reward only at the end of behavior. You can use a toy or find a treat that your dog isn't so crazy about that its presence sucks everything else out of his brain.
We all have to train in the way that works best for dog and person, as long as it doesn't cause the dog harm. I do correct my dogs, but I always use the mildest correction that works, and I never correct them for behavior they don't know is wrong - that's a training situation, not a disciplinary one. And I always use physical rewards, treats or toys, so that they have no doubt when they've done something just right, but I fade them out almost entirely after they've learned the behavior so that they never know whether this might be the time they get the treat or not. It's a great way of keeping good behaviors strong.
Amy Samida was a professional groomer prior to her career in veterinary nursing. She began training dogs as a child and has continued training and working with problem dogs through it all. Amy is now the owner of Naughty Dog Cafe in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-276-3522