19 Feb

Why Using Food Isn’t Bribery

Piggybacking off my recent post “But, my dog isn’t food motivated” I thought I’d touch on another thing I hear commonly from clients – “I don’t want to bribe my dog with food.”

For some reason, a lot of people see using food in training as some form of corruption, like if they use food the dog will like them less.  Let me tell you this secret – it’s not true.  In fact, the opposite is true.  I know, I know.  You want your dog to work because they love you or because you’re in charge.  Nope.  You don’t work for free and neither do dogs.  You go to work to get a paycheck.  Should we start saying you’re being bribed to go to work?  Maybe as a joke but I doubt you really see yourself going to work and receiving a paycheck for those hours worked as an illegal or dishonest thing.  No, you earned that paycheck.  And it keeps you coming back week to week.

Motivation takes many forms and drives everything that you, me and your dog does.  So what’s the difference between a bribe and motivation?  Let’s look at definitions:

Bribe –  “persuade (someone) to act in one’s favor, typically illegally or dishonestly, by a gift of money or other inducement.”

Motivation – “the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way.”

When training obedience behaviors, we start with food to lure a dog into the position we’re teaching.  The dog follows the smell of the food into position and then we pay (reward) the dog in that position.  Over time we fade out the food lure, move to a hand signal and eventually verbal cue, and the dog only gets the food if they do the right thing.  They did the job and they get the paycheck.  If the dog does the wrong thing, like goes into the wrong position, then we cancel the food reward and the dog doesn’t earn it.

In cases where we are helping a fearful, anxious or aggressive dog, and need to change how the dog feels about a situation (like helping him not be afraid of strangers or have his food bowl taken away), we use food to build a strong positive association between the scary thing predicting really yummy food is coming.  Eventually, if done right, the dog goes from “I’m afraid of that” to “Yippee, I love that because it predicts steak!”

How are either of these situations bribery?  They’re not. They’re operant and classical conditioning, not bribery.  They’re science.

I could feasibly make a case that bribery happens with poor training mechanics by incompetent trainers or regular people who just don’t know any better.  Here’s an example.  If every time you wanted your dog to sit, you first went to the treat jar, got a treat, showed it to him and then said, “Look what I have…now sit.”   Maybe that’s bribery.  But competent trainers don’t train like this.

What’s different?  We teach the dog what we’re asking them to do in order to get the paycheck.  We break it down into manageable parts so the dog wins often and stays in the game.  Then we make it gradually harder.  And after the dog is reliably trained, we move intermittently rewarding them with food to help keep the behavior strong.  This is the same idea behind slot machines.  They don’t pay out every single time, but the chance that they will next time keeps you playing.  But we can’t do it too soon, or the dog will quit playing our game.

So please, use food in training.  I promise you it’s not nefarious and it’s not going to damage your relationship.  In fact, your dog will love you more if you’re the cheese lady.

If you need help finding a qualified trainer, check The Academy for Dog Trainers directory or the Pet Professional Guild directory.  If you still can’t find help or are unsure if the trainer you’re considering is using the right methods, contact me.  I also offer remote sessions for many issues.

And remember, there’s only a few days left to register for my Dogs & Storks: Preparing Families With Dogs For Life With Baby workshop in Brooklyn, NY.  I hope to see you there!

Happy Training!

–Kate