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But My Dog Won’t Take Treats!

I’ve seen the above statement used and said frequently by my dog clients (and defenders of “balanced” dog training – see my post about “balanced” training here). They have a dog or are working with a dog who actively refuses to eat whatever treats you are providing to them as reward for doing the desired behavior. Let’s look at some of the reasons why that might be.

First, let’s back up a bit and look at why we positive trainers typically use food in the first place. Simply put: All creatures need to eat food. As responsible owners of our dogs it’s our duty to provide food to our canine partners. Food is therefore a desired resource and we fulfill this need of our dog making us too a valuable resource. Once dogs learn that good behavior gets them rewarded, they will repeat the good behavior more frequently in the hopes it too will bring about rewards! Basic learning theory.

Some people incorrectly assume dogs should be “loyal” and do what we ask simply because we asked it. But that’s not how this works. In human terms you can think of this like getting paid for your job. As a kid, when you were learning things, you might have earned a gold star for doing chores or acing a homework assignment. As an adult, you go to work daily and eventually get a nice fat paycheck for your efforts.

So even we don’t “work” for free (even volunteer work provides us with rewards). But eventually we get some reward. It’s no longer instant, like it was as a child while we were learning those chores but it is still there. If you suddenly got less of a paycheck or no paycheck, you’d easily become frustrated and eventually stop working because your reward has stopped. No rewards. No work. Same applies with all creatures.

For dogs, there are some that refuse food while your training. Instead of being frustrated this can be a great signal to you that what your asking is too difficult for your dog and you need to make it easier (most common) or the reward isn’t valuable enough for them considering the challenge you’re asking. Let’s look at a dog example of my own clients dog refusing treats during training.

We were working on doing a desensitization sessions with a client and her dog Bear (name changed). Bear was a reactive Doberman who was terrified of dogs on the walk and would react when she saw them by barking/lunging at them on leash. During one of our first session, I was using my common treat bag on a mix of dog kibble, dried chicken bits and salmon. We were playing the “Look at That” game and as she looked at a dog, we’d mark that behavior with a click from our clicker and she’d get a reward of food. Our first round of this, she took the treat and spat it out. Why?

First thing we should look at is the situation. Here the demo dog was about 50 feet away and walking by sideways staring at Bear. Maybe this distance was too close to her and she was simply too nervous to eat. Maybe Bear was uncomfortable by the dogs stare. A human analogy of this would be if you were put in a the middle of a group of mean looking people armed with guns. I’d approach and offer you $100 bucks. You might take it, you might not. But your focus/priorities are centered around safety, not monetary rewards. The situation is too overwhelming for you to be considered about money.

The other issue was maybe the reward wasn’t highly valued enough for the challenge Bear was facing. Using something like cheese or freshly cooked chicken might result in her focus changing and her being able to eat the treat. You can think of it as the “payment” not being high enough for the work being asked. Imagine you were asked to empty a trailer of boxes into a storage unit. It takes you 5 hours, and you are hot, sweaty and tired. They give you $10 for your efforts. Then ask you to come by next weekend do to the same.

In this case, I asked us to move back a bit. Give her more distance so she’d feel comfortable in taking treats again. She did and her next “Look AT That” got her some yummy cheese!

In my near 12+ years of working with dogs, I’ve never met a dog who didn’t like food. Never. Some also are motivated by other things like toys or tug or a scratch in that good spot, but none have ever not wanted food. Even after they’ve just eaten dinner. If your dog ever refused treats, its a good time for you to take a step back and see what might actually be going on that is causing your dog to be overwhelmed and alleviate that overwhelmedness.

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Bribing Your Dog

I think the number one complaint I hear about positive training methods is that they rely on using treats to bribe your dog to listening to the things you suggest. There seems to be a belief that dogs are supposed to be subservient and submit to our orders instantly. People believe that dogs should respect their masters enough for the owners to not have to reward them with treats or food.

I was surprised when I first started training dogs the amount of push back I got for choosing to use scientifically based fear-free training methods. I thought that people, while initially skeptically, once showed the results, would be like “Oh! Of course that’s way better than X, Y or Z” and flock to it. But I’ve found a lot of the clients I’ve worked with and those who I’ve interacted within the training community were pretty resistant to it. What surprised me even more was people would willingly choose to use painful training methods like a shock collar or choke chain instead of something as powerful as food.

I suppose some of this comes from the mentality of “this was the way it was always done.” Positive training methods, while used prior, weren’t well popularized until the 1980s when Ian Dunbar and Karen Pryor began to publish some of the methods and techniques they use to train animals. I think some of it also comes from what people see and hear about in the media with the popular Cesar Milan “Dog Whisperer” show driving people’s prospective of what dog training should look like.

The biggest complaint by far that I hear from folks who are initially resistant to using food or treats in training is they don’t want to have to bribe their dog into doing what the human want. They want their dog’s to respect and love them, without having to use food as a crutch. This belief is incorrect for two reasons.

The first is that in order for a dog to respect you and continue to work for you, you do need to pay your dog. You dog works just like you do. They bark, they walk, they play, and they love unconditionally. This is the job we have asked them to do. Humans and dogs history has been intertwined for tens of thousands of years. They deserve to be paid for that “work” that we have bred them for. We don’t work for free, so why should we expect our dogs too.

The second misconception is that when you training positively your dog will ONLY listen when you have treats. The fact is that you don’t always have to use treats or food, you can use what are called “life rewards” to “pay” your dog with something they like that isn’t food. Maybe it’s the toss of a favorite ball or toy, maybe it’s access to a new area or access to greet a person or dog. Maybe it’s simply a “good dog” and a hearty scratch. One of my own dogs LOVES burying herself into the blankets. Be creative and do what works for the both of you.

Tailing from this idea of using other rewards besides food, keep in mind, you don’t always have to pay your dog 100% of the time, but you do still have to pay them eventually. Much like you don’t get a paycheck every day, you do still get one after a period of time. You’ll continue to work during this unpaid week/s or month with the expectation that your boss will keep up their end of the deal and pay you fairly for your work. Throughout the work week, you’ll get small paychecks, maybe a “good job,” get to have lunch “on the company’s dime,” or maybe someone will bring in donuts for the office. These small “payments” keep you motivated to keep working until that big payday comes. Your dog is the same way.

They need these small “payments” while they work, and then a few jackpots to keep up the intensity/interest in you and what you’re asking them to do. The biggest win you can have while training your dog in a force free method is a bond and trust that outweighs all others. It is a bond that has been formed over the centuries between humankind and canine. And it’s one we can all hope to experience in our lifetimes.