Okay, let’s set the record straight once and for all. “Treat” isn’t a four letter word. Nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing to hide. So, honestly, we really don’t have to be afraid of saying it out loud in front of grandma anymore. I, Sarah Owings, a professional trainer, with professionally trained dogs of my own, yes, even I still carry a pouch of treats with me on walks! Yes, even I still lavish my dogs generously with well timed yummies when they choose to pay attention to me rather than lunge at a barking dog, keep the leash loose when walking through a crowd, or respond to their names when a cat runs by. Even I still run to the fridge for an impromptu jackpot when they come in from the backyard right away when I call. Yes, even I, a professional trainer, still feed my dogs for not jumping on houseguests. I even toss tasty morsels to them during dinner occasionally too–as long as they are laying on their mats or in their crates instead of pestering us at the table.
Zoë is eight. Maya is somewhere closer to twelve. Zoë in particular has had intensive, highly focused reinforcement-based training for most of her life. When I cue any of her known behaviors at this point, I’m so confident in her response I’d be willing to bet just about anyone $100 she will do it correctly. A few years ago on the outdoor patio of a dog friendly restaurant, I remember cuing her to lay down and she dropped to the ground so quickly the guy at the next table whistled in amazement. “That was scary fast,” he said. “How did you get your dog to do that?” …Well, although I do seem to be pretty good at my job and am deeply committed to this method of teaching and learning, it really isn’t rocket science. My dogs, particularly Zoë, do as I ask, behave politely in public most of the time, and are a joy to live with because they have a GINORMOUS reinforcement history for doing so. It’s that simple. They are reliable because I am reliable. I never ever take their “obedience” for granted. I never assume they are going to do what I ask just because I said so. Even for behaviors that they know well and have done correctly many times, I still do my darndest to pay up for great responses. I don’t mess around with intermittent schedules of reinforcement either unless there is some specific reason for it, which there never really is. On the very rare occasion that I don’t have food on me, food easily at hand, or some other type of reinforcer I know for sure will cut the mustard with my dogs in that particular moment, I either won’t say a cue at all or, in a pinch, I will at least try to provide something in exchange: usually a butt scratch and happy talk followed by a release to go do whatever it was they wanted to do in the first place; and if it happens that at my request Zoë or Maya have to actually give up something, and it ends up being a bummer for them, i.e. a withdrawal rather than a deposit in our trust account, I go way out of my way to be sure they get a pretty big paycheck the next time.
Granted, “treats” is a lousy word for so powerful an influence on behavior. When we humans think “treats,” we picture unhealthy, rare indulgences that are not usually so good for us like candy bars or ice cream. This mentality ends up making it all too easy to be stingy with our dogs during training. That is why, unwieldy as it may be, the proper term I should be using here really is “reinforcement,” not “treat,” and not “reward.” If a behavior is maintained or gets stronger, it is being reinforced by something. That is the law of learning. Period. Lots of things reinforce behavior besides food such as opportunities to do fun things, a chance to play with dogs, attention from a favorite person, freedom to move, a great feeling, an exciting event, a sensation of relief, etc. However, food is a primary reinforcer for all living things; so when you feed your dog a memorable treat, in his mind he’s probably not thinking: “Oh boy! I’m such a good dog I got a treat!” He is thinking: “Oh boy! I got food! I’m not going to starve today!” Dogs don’t mess around with survival. As the descendants of hunters and scavengers, they are hardwired to work for a living, and I for one tend to take things dogs are passionate about pretty seriously.
However, for many pet owners, the effort of portioning food as reinforcement instead of dumping it in a bowl twice a day, and thinking in terms of reinforcement all the time instead of just during training class, is understandably daunting. “When can I stop using treats?” is the number one question I have to field during consults; and even after I’ve thought I’ve made it pretty darn clear that although certainly one can branch out to a wider variety of reinforcers besides food eventually, the answer really is NEVER, I still inevitably find myself cringing silently inside a few weeks or months later when these same, quite well-intentioned people say something like: “Fido does (insert difficult behavior here) now and I don’t even have to use treats anymore!” This usually makes me so sad to hear because what the dog is being asked to do is often pretty hard such getting into the bathtub after years of being terrified of water, or choosing to ignore food left out on a low table, or passing another dog on a walk without barking or lunging. Why don’t people ever declare with equal pride how they remembered to jackpot with fresh salmon or beef that time their dog came away from a squirrel so darn fast? Where does all this shame, denial, and reluctance come from? …Well, people, I’m here to tell you, time to be free of this misconception once and for all. If keeping treats at the ready helps you live more harmoniously with your pet on a daily basis, you are in great company! Many of the world’s best trainers, including almost all zookeepers, marine mammal trainers, and a growing majority of top level competition trainers, professional pet dog trainers like myself, and liberated pet owners everywhere, have accepted food reinforcers–not just as a temporary training tool– but as a way of life. Using primary reinforcers on an ongoing basis does not mean you are a bad trainer, or that you don’t have control of your dog, it means you understand how behavior change really works.
Of course some jobs we ask our dogs to do grow resilient and remain so even without primary reinforcers, and many dogs will work equally hard for toys or play as they do for food. Some tasks we require of them are also conveniently reinforced by opportunities to go do other fun things that the dog wanted to do anyway such as sitting before being let out the door to play in the yard, or walking on a loose leash past distractions and then being allowed to go investigate afterwards. Dogs lock into these types of consistent reinforcement patterns very quickly. Other behaviors, such as sitting on cue in a quiet room with nothing else going on are simply so easy to do in that context that weaker reinforcers like praise or petting are sometimes enough to keep things going. However, eight times out of ten what we demand of our dogs in order for them to conform to our lives in ways that are more convenient for us is often much more expensive for them than most people realize. When we have expectations such as coming when called instead of chasing a rabbit or deer, or to please not jump on aunt Tilly, or to walk at our sides instead of sniffing the bushes or pulling over to go say hi to that dog over there, what we are asking is for our dogs to basically give up being dogs. Want Fido to come away from play with a buddy at the park right away the first time you call? Ha! Fat chance unless you have diligently worked to build up a pretty powerful reinforcement history for that particular behavior in advance, a reinforcement history massive enough to trump all that the frenzied fun Fido may be having in that moment.
Way back when Zydeco first came to stay with us, almost two months ago now, in my first z-dogs post I wrote about how I was excited to start fresh with a puppy because Zoë is now so easy to live with I’ve kind of forgotten how she actually got that way. Well, now I remember. Reinforcement made it happen. Years and years of consistent, dogged, unflinching reinforcement. Zydy was and still is a great guy at heart but he came to us with very few human-acceptable skills. To be honest, he was pretty much a wild man most of the time, jumping, mouthing, careening around, yanking at the leash, whining, barking, and scrabbling crazily in the car, stealing things, nipping hands, feet clothing, highly distractible, much more interested in the excitement of dogs barking, squirrels running, barking at visitors and other dogs, etc., than in listening to me. So, I got out my treat pouch and went to work. From the first moment he arrived, until the last day he left, I reinforced that boy non stop for ANYTHING he did that I liked. I watched him religiously for moments of calm, flickers of focus, fleeting instances of self-control, and all correct responses to cues. Sometimes in the middle of his bigger barking fits, I would have to wait until he took a breath–click! Yep. Half a second of quiet. Caught it! YAY! Was he or I perfect during this process? No. Is he perfectly behaved at all times now? No. But by golly Zydy did gain some better skills, and fast. How did I do it? How on earth did I convince him to do things like let go of that towel I was trying to put in the dryer, to back off and wait instead of chomping my arms or feet, or to sit calmly at the side gate until released, and then to walk calmly on leash all the way to the street instead of bolting and yanking my arm off? For an impulsive, high drive young dog like him, I knew that self-control is an extremely expensive behavior, so I PAID REALLY REALLY WELL FOR IT! I was never stingy. He got the best food, the highest value toys, and every opportunity I could give to release him to go “be a dog” and do whatever he wanted (within reason) after he did anything I wanted. My goal was for him to learn that it is worth it to listen to me every single time, and that listening to me is almost never going to be a bummer or disappointment for him. When working on key life skills such as recalls or Relax on a Mat, I did not mess around with low value foods either, but instead chose his favorite canned wet dog food to build the behavior up as strong as I could. Here’s what his first training session looked like. This is now one of his favorite behaviors to do. Can you tell why?
The world of dog training is filled with politics, polarized opinion, ethical dilemmas, philosophical debates, and controversy–and a surprising lot of it has to do with whether or not dogs should be trained with treats in the first place, or whether one should “fade” out the food later on once the behaviors are complete. But it really all boils down to this: when it comes to expensive behaviors, either you choose to use reinforcement to build and then maintain that behavior for the lifetime of your dog, or you have to use some form of pressure, punishment, or the threat of pressure or punishment to either suppress behaviors you don’t like, or build avoidance behaviors that look like compliance. Thanks to Zydeco’s great reminder these past two months, however, I can safely say without a doubt that reinforcement gets the job done–as long as the humans involved are willing to commit to the project.
Clear patterns of reinforcement build trust. Choose the path of trust wholeheartedly, without any doubt or stinginess, and you and your dog will eventually find yourselves standing together on more solid ground. Once you reach that plateau, stop and consider your progress. How did you get here? Look down. Beneath your feet there is now a shining brick road that you paved beneath your own feet treat by treat by treat. Take those first brave steps with your dog today, and before you know it, you both will be cavorting in the land where pets listen joyously to their owners each and every time they call, and owners fully respect and understand their pets–not because either of them have to, but because few other pathways in life are more reinforcing to follow than this one.
(If you’d like to learn how to teach your dog this way too and don’t have a clicker trainer near you, I, along with Helix Fairweather and Lynn Martin, have an online pet manners class. www.cyberdogonline.com).