Are You Misusing Treats in Your Dog Training?

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Are you using tooooo many treats?

Recently, in the dog training world, there have been questions brought up regarding the use of treats in today’s dog training.

It seems as though the tide has turned from choke chains, prong collars and compulsion, to positive reinforcement and the introduction of treats, to the misuse of treats which has turned into bribing our dogs to comply.

Bribery is never pretty and almost never works on a long term basis.  Bribery is defined as a form of corruption, an act implying money or a gift that alters the behavior of an individual.

How Do You Know When Good Dog Training Turns to the Not So Pretty Bribery?

Once your dog has truly learned a behavior, and you no longer need to help him by luring him to successfully complete the behavior… but he only listens to you IF he knows you have and will use a treat you are crossing into the bounds of bribery!

If you have to SHOW your dog the treat in order to try to convince him to comply you are bribing him!

I thought for a long time before writing this article because I guess I would rather see people bribe their dogs before I would want to see people choke or use physical corrections and the last thing I want to do is convince people that using treats is the wrong way to train their dog.  However, I know that people get frustrated when they realize they have to bribe their dogs to listen. 

The first comment I usually get when I want to teach people about positive reinforcement and how to work effectively with their dog is “I don’t want to use food in dog training because that is bribery”.

Next, I have to try and educate them about the difference of using treats to their and their dog’s advantage and letting that use of treats backslide into bribery.

Why Do People End Up Bribing Their Dogs?

The number one reason people misuse treats is because they simply don’t know when or how to wean their dogs off of the treats they used to teach their dogs the behavior in the beginning of the learning stage.

The other reason I think that treat usage falls into the realm of bribery, is because people get lazy in their dog training.

How Do You Utilize Treats Without Bribing Your Dog?

Understanding How Learning Works

Luring is only for the beginning steps of Learning

The first thing to understand is about learning and knowing when it is time to stop treating and rely on the “Jack Pot Theory” or Intermittent Reinforcement in dog training.

When you are learning a new behavior you need almost constant reinforcement.  When someone is teaching you a new computer program, you need to be taught how to utilize the program.  Success gives you what you want and failure teaches you what not to do.

Your dog is the same.  In the beginning, you need to TEACH your dog what to do by luring him with the treat.  By luring I mean sticking the treat near the dog’s nose or mouth and then enticing him to do the behavior I desire.

If I am trying to teach my new puppy to sit; I put a treat near his nose and then mouth and slowly bring the treat upward.  As his nose goes up his rump goes down and his butt hits the ground at that moment I release the treat; this enforces the behavior of sitting.  Before the sit the treat simply is used to “lure” the dog into the behavior.

I may have to do this several times in order to teach my dog what I want and then pair it with the command.

Once my dog has learned what I desire (the sit behavior) and the command and he truly understands in a number of situations (inside, outside, when he is distracted) I no longer need the treat to entice him.  I should only need to give him the command and praise him to have him comply.

However, in many obedience classes around the world you still see owners “luring” their dogs to sit at week 4 or even week 8.  At this point, since the dog knows the command the treat becomes bribery and is completely being over and misused.

Instead, the dog should be showing more and more challenging and difficult behaviors in order to get the treat.

For example: I would rarely give my puppy a treat after he has learned “sit” unless he delivers the command in an extraordinary way; if another dog sniffed my pup while I gave the command but my pup still sat he should get a treat.

If my puppy ignored a squirrel and sat when I asked him to he should get a treat, however he should almost rarely get a treat for a regular, boring or normal sit.

I say “rarely” because I still want to reward on occasion so my puppy learns to listen and he never truly knows when he is in for a small treat or a jackpot.  This idea of intermittent reinforcement it what builds the reliability for a behavior for a lifetime.

If I NEVER reward my puppy for a “sit” again, after he has learned the behavior, he will be less and less likely to carry out the command when I give it.  The key is to only reward rarely for behavior that is already learned and to sometimes “jackpot” your pup by giving him a bigger or better reward.  This jackpot is what keeps him interested and motivated to perform for you!

If you are really, really good at this type of training and you build a very strong foundation of praise WHILE you are treating and jackpotting your dog both in the learning stages and the post stages your praise will become almost equal to the reward that a food treat gives!  But you have to be consistent and happily give your puppy praise, games and excitement when you reward him!

For example: the dolphins and whales at SeaWorld are not constantly lured or rewarded they have to complete more and more advanced skills and only are rewarded after several difficult and chained behaviors have been preformed!

When used correctly Treats are a Wonderful aid in Dog Training

Don’t Get Lazy!

“Up the ante” when working with your dog make him perform more and more difficult behavior for his rewards!

It is much easier to constantly lure your dog and reward him for the same behavior over and over and over again even if he KNOWS the behavior.  People get stuck in a rut and they don’t want to expect their dog to do something more difficult or they don’t want to see their dog fail.

Your 8th grader should not be doing 4th grade math!  As your children learn the subjects get more and more difficult in order for them to be successful at learning and moving on.  Sometimes tests are aced and sometimes tests are failed however school continues to get more and more challenging to stimulate, entertain, and challenge the student.  Imagine how boring it would be to stay at a 4th grade math level.  You would probably refuse to comply to do the same thing over and over for the same reward too!

Likewise it would be ridiculous to reward yourself for adding 2+2 but it would be a great idea to reward yourself or if your spouse rewarded you with jewelry or a new car for passing your college statistics class or getting your doctorate! Rewards can be a wonderful tool when used appropriately!

Your dog will excel, he will also fail occasionally.  You will have to back up in your training and sometimes you will need to raise your expectations in him and what he is capable of.   He will frustrate you and sometimes he will simply amaze you!!

The KEY is to be constantly changing! 

Expect more and more but occasionally give him a bonus for a job well done and this will keep you from falling into the pitfalls of bribery and a dog that only listens when he can see or smell a treat on your body 😉 you will become EXCITING!

There are 27 Comments

  1. Judith says:

    Great advice – I’m learning a lot!! My 2-year old terrier mix and I took a dog training course and he was rewarded for his good behavior. However, I still keep treats in my pocket and when I give him the command to sit (or whatever), he does it readily but most of the time his eyes are on my left-hand pocket where the treats are always kept. Not good. So, I will learn from this discussion and not be so generous with the treats!

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  2. Justice says:

    Yes very good advice. My Justice is so much like my grandchildren and of course spoiled. But I picked up this message from you on your training videos. Justice is so much like humans, at least that is what my family and friends say. I believe it and Justice knows it. Justice is an American Bulldog,, he is very sharp. I had Justice following commands at age of 8 weeks. Your video were very helpful, thank you for sharing your techniques….Luis

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  3. Nancy says:

    My daughter recently moved home with me and with her came a very VERY spoiled dog of 7 years. 70 pounds worth of spoiled. When she was with my daughter all these years anything and EVERYTHING was okay. At my house, none of this behavior is allowed! She is a mix (they think) of terrier, pit bull and boxer. She’s not a mean dog but thinks she’s a lap dog and its crazy time when company comes over with the jumping and barking and boy, does she have a LOUD bark. To take her for a walk is absolutely exhuasting. Can an old dog be taught new behavior with out the use of an angry voice or that damn poke chain, or what ever it’s called?

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    Minette Reply:

    Dogs are never too old to learn! Yes! Stop using the angry voice and the prong collar and teach her to listen to you for everything she gets in life, her food, petting should all be controlled by you for what you want her to do! Lay down the law…but do it kindly and you will see her change!

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  4. Thank you so much for this information.
    It is exactly the problem we created with our wonderful dog.

    She expects them everytime she does the good thing as we have trained her.
    We have had to change the treats several times as we believe some were upsetting her stomach. We want to gradually get her off of them completely and we are working on accomplishing that goal/.Things are getting better with our efforts. Thanx again.

    We have a 3 year old Chi-got her as a puppy and she is the BEST!!!! PIXIE!!!
    Jean Fournier

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    Minette Reply:

    Wean her slowly but use jackpots and you will see her attitude change!

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  5. We adopted Archie at 1&1/2 yrs old. Did no training but he was house broken. I have learned so much from your book and these notes you send out to us. I will now remember to not always treat. I was told his being 8 yrs old, it would be impossible for him to learn new things. Not so. I had already had him enrolled is a training class, the teacher used almost all of your methods. when I purchased your book.It helped me even more. He will “dance” on his hind legs without a treat when we are around people and alone. If I were not in a power chair I am quite sure he would turn around while dancing but I can’t stand over him to teach him. I am so thankful for all the info you give us. Wish though there was a way to “undo” his territorial barking. When people come to the door he goes crazy. I have not been able to keep him on his blanket when the doorbell rings. He is a perfect gentleman once they are in. At pet stores where dogs are abundant (on leashes) he has no problem but around the premises he will try to attack any dog who dares enter his domain.

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  6. Merle says:

    Thank you for this very enlightening article. The analogy between 4th grade and 6th grade Math is a very clear description of when and when not to reward an already learned behavior.Your articles are an abundant source of learning for me as well as my dog. Thanks again.

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    Minette Reply:

    THANK YOU!!

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  7. Doralee Shannon says:

    I have a 10 month maltese and he barks more than I care (& he is loud). I don’t know how to stop this behavior. He is just spoiled. How do you unspoil? He is driving me crazy. I have had him since he was 8 weeks old. He has done plenty of training and knows better but only minds when he wants to. He also goes balastic around a lot of noise and people. He lunges and pulls me! (on the leash, of course). HELP!

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  8. Kay says:

    I am 72 & my husband Joel is 73. We have (now) 4 dogs. We lost our Emma, our Pug this past year. The best litle ball player & retreiver & walking withut a leash, sit on command dog we have ever had. She developed bladder stones & we lost her.

    Rowdy is an 9 year old daushaund & EXTREMELY spoiled by Joel. I’ve tried to train Joel for 37 years and have been UNSUCESSFUL : )

    Triper is an 8 year old Jack Russel Terrier BUT<\, not the usual kind. He is a carbon copy of his parents, short legged & wide, thus a nick name "WIDE-GLIDE" given by a friend. He is our most CONTROLABLE dog. Not trained, but he listends better than the others.

    Then we have Lacie & Tucker, the runt & biggest pups from Rowdy. They are 4 years old.

    TRYING to train 4 over excited, ranbunkious dogs is a real challenge, but I HAVE TO DO IT!!!!!!! We have been turned in to the animal control force because of excessive barking when Joel takes them for a walk, I really should say, when the dogs DRAG him around the block.

    I started this morning with the simple FETCH lesson. I have a bunch of bone heads. I will try several times a day untill they "GET IT".

    Thank you for this course. I hope I live through it : )

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  9. I have a havanese that came to the house.
    I have learned more from my dog than the dog has learned from me.
    This dog is one that goes to everyone, dog or person,big or little.

    I have never had such dog. She stays close to me inside or out.

    When we go for a walk I just follow with a 6 foot lish. She stops to go to all dogs on the walk. She also loves to go to children and other dogs.

    She will wake me up at night to take her out for a potty.
    She wakes me up by licking my ear when I am at sleep.
    She protects her home when anyone comes to the front door but will always go up to the person coming to the door with the tail wagging.

    I would not take anything for her. She in part of the family.

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  10. martin woodman says:

    i never use treats or any food at all.wen i train a dog a puppy.its all love and playtime,the best trainers in the world treat thear dogs,for me play time and love and care,the dog will respect you more.as alfar.if i give a comand to sit to stay.it will get love or stroke.then wen training over,maybe some treats,but it will never be for a trick or command.but treats do workcoz dog,s are greaddy.its not for me or the dogs im training

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  11. Irving Jones says:

    i have a 3.5 month old red nose pit bull name tiger and since i been using this training in effect and he was doing amazing until we got to sit because when i tell him to sit he would sit but not want to wait so he will start to do what i call a Lazy Sit and then lay down and even when. i leave and re-try again he would constantly do the same thing i dont know if he just know to do it but is just choosing not to, or maybe he caught on to the repeats and repetitions so fast that ow he just feels he dont need to get anything else….I dont know. also, now i do kind of find myself bribing him to do what i want a little bit and i am stuck in this point what should i do. i really need help and he also does this for barking when he cant get what he wants he stops for 15-30 sec then i click and reward but goes to do it again on numerous times he still barks while doing the LAZY SIT or Laying Down someone please HELP ME!!!!!!!

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    Minette Reply:

    You need to be consistent and help him to learn.

    It is normal for a dog to run through all the things you have taught him in an effort to get you to reward him.

    If he is laying down and that is not what you want, use your treat to show him that what you want is a sit.

    If you don’t like the “lazy” sit then only reward him for sitting the way you desire and as soon as he shifts his position let him know that is not what you desire and help him go back to what you want.

    He is confused and trying to please you, help him to understand what you want and be consistent, fair and kind.

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    Irving Jones Reply:

    Thank you i will use that method. i also wanted to know what would be the best way for me t not make him want to lay down on the sit command? i just want to get him to stay in sit command in small increment time and then for as long as i tell him but he sits for maybe a second or two and kind of take a huge groan with his nose and lays down. then i let him know its not what i want then he follows, i stop then he starts barking then he lays down and continues barking i relly want to get his barking under control. i dont know if its because he is maybe bored with it but i just want to at least throw out here all the common factors people may have faced and got there dog to accomplish this situation so i can succeed like everyone else with there dog. Thanks again Minette!!!!!

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    Minette Reply:

    If he lays down immediately tell him no or ehh and then move away from him a few feet. He should follow you but wont be rewarded.

    Then tell him happily to sit again and reward him as soon as he sits. Then be FAST and reward him again for continued sitting. And wait a few seconds and reward him again. He should be rewarded intermittently for staying in the same spot. Read this http://www.thedogtrainingsecret.com/blog/intermittent-reinforcement-building-dog-training-foundation/

    If he gets up move a few feet away and ask him to sit again, if you are consistent he will begin to understand.

  12. Kari says:

    This makes me think of my two-and-a-half-year-old German shepherd who “knows” sit, but if I ask him without a treat in hand, he just looks at me blankly. Even with a treat in hand, he can be slow to put his butt down. He’s also developed some leash reactivity, so on our walks I’m practicing having him sit and look at me, which requires luring because of all the distractions. What do you suggest?

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    Minette Reply:

    You need a firmer foundation at home without distractions and then add more and more distractions as he is successful.

    Aim for eye contact for a minute or two at home without having him break it before you move to more distractive environments.

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  13. Shannon says:

    When you talk about eventually weaning the dog off treats, does this mean you are also weaning the dog off the clicker? Or do you continue to click but not reward? Or must every click mean a treat?

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    Minette Reply:

    Every click must bring a treat no matter what! Otherwise the clicker loses it’s meaning.

    Eventually you don’t need the clicker. I don’t use a clicker unless I am teaching a new behavior but sometimes I still jackpot for good behavior and quick response

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  14. Shannon says:

    I tried weaning my dog off the treats but instead of thinking “maybe this time I will get one” she appears to be thinking “what if I don’t get one this time” and does not perform the behaviour. She knows when I have treats and when I don’t, so when I go outside to her (she is an outdoor dog) without treats, she greets me happily, however when I walk out with treats, all her focus is on the treats and she completely forgets about me. I know a good solution to the second problem would be to teach her to “watch me” but she would only do it for a treat and not actually be focused on me. Please help

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  15. RICHARD says:

    change from treats to another motivator but use treats as a jackpot reward sparingly

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  16. Mary Campbell says:

    I know that teething puppies are a fact of life, but my 12 week old golden uses me as her favorite chew toy! She understands “Leave it!” and will briefly stop with a click and small treat. I have removed myself from her when she gets too chewy, but she practically attacks my hands with such joy! Distracting her with a real chew toy works briefly. What am I doing wrong?! Will she just naturally outgrow most of this?

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  17. Elaine says:

    I am taking care of my granddaughters 18 month old French Bulldog while she is in her last 6 months of college. She is a delight to have around, except… she think it’s ok to poop in the house. She does not hide it, just goes in the middle of the floor as if it’s ok. I am confused with the correct way to handle this situation. She was raised in an apartment with the potty tray and will use that when she is in her area. But she doesn’t go right after eating, and I spend hours walking her. It is very frustrating. I show her the pile and say no, and she looks like she is ashamed but does it again unless I tether her outside, she has a run on the front lawn, even then I never actually see her do her job. We need help.

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    Minette Reply:

    use the search bar at the top of the page to search potty training for the help that you need.

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  18. I have a 7 mos old Black & Tan Coonhound and a 7 year old Coonhound. The puppy is impossible to walk – she barks and goes crazy at absolutely everything which then gets the older dog barking which he never did. I was told since she is a Coonhound (hunting dog) that she cannot be trained with conventional methods due to the breed. I have been working with her in the house but when we get outside she is uncontrollable and barks constantly. Any help would be truly appreciated.

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