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Why Do We Use Treats?

We have all been there. The dog trainer yet again sharply says “reward that with a treat” and you think “again with the treats, when will I stop having to use treats?”.

Here is the concise answer. There is no Google voice for dogs, at best the average pet dog will learn a handful of word cues in their life, that will take a long time and require intermediate steps. If you want an obedient dog, you need to communicate with that dog what you want them to do, in a simpler way first. The main way of doing this, is by creating a NICE consequence, when they do something you like, so that they do it more. Just like training a muscle at the gym or learning any new skill, it takes repetition. We also call something NICE, a reinforcer.

In human terms we go to work and a NICE pay packet hits ours bank account each month. With this money we can buy food that tastes good, releases endorphins and keeps us alive. If our manager stopped paying us, we would soon stop going.

Whilst dogs find lots of things NICE, there are a limited number of things we can use repeatedly in a short space of time, to train with that necessary repetition. A favourite lamp post is only useable when you walk past it. You could use off lead play, but if your recall is not reliable, your dog would be free to practice not listening to you. You could use toys but a play session is not as quick as a treat and you would still end up wondering, when can I stop the toys. Other NICE things such as safety and comfort should be present anyway to maintain the dog’s mental and physical health. So, what are we left with?

Treats are quick to deliver, can be timed to perfection with the addition of a marker word or click, they release endorphins, have survival value to the dog, can be delivered to the dog’s mouth or to another location in the training area and can be repeated again a few seconds later. This is why we use treats. Praise is fine too but generally does not have the same biological strength and is therefore not as powerful or efficient, so can be used as a secondary reinforcer.

When can I stop using treats?

It depends on the dog, trainer and task at hand, but I would say the following.

Teaching new behaviours requires lots of treats. Many repetitions give the dog many chances to understand what it is, you want them to do. It takes a long time for a dog to fully understand the many variations of things we want them to perform, so we must carry on using treats. Actually, a dog is a living breathing creature that is always learning.

Teaching new behaviours includes teaching behaviours that your dog already knows, in new situations. If your dog knows a sit at home in the kitchen and you try it at training classes with lots of other dogs, you will need to go back to using lots of treats to explain to the dog that it means the same thing there. The dog has not forgotten it, it just hasn’t generalised it to new or more exciting situations yet. This is why at training classes we will use treats the whole time, because generally speaking it is all new learning from the dog’s point of view, even though from the human’s point of view, the dog already knows the thing that is being practiced. What about sitting to cross the road? I’m afraid it’s the same again, just because the dog knows sit in the kitchen and at training classes, it doesn’t mean it knows it when crossing the road and sitting at your side. Use some treats to reiterate the skill to the dog. The more situations you practice in the more your dog will generalise and the more reliable the behaviour will become. We have all had that thought, “he comes to me at home, but won’t come in the park”. That is because it needs more practice with distractions with a strong reinforcer like treats.

In reality we do not always have treats on us and then we can use praise, but don’t expect to teach new behaviours efficiently without treats. Well engrained behaviours in low distraction situations, we may well just use praise with the odd maintenance treat. Life or death behaviours such as recall, always use treats for the rest of the dog’s life. Some dogs will adopt some taught behaviours as default behaviours, such as sit or laying down, this can be useful as an appropriate behaviour in a range of situations. Please do not expect the same reliability from something like recall, where there are many competing motivators such as other dogs and wild life. For this, you will always need to provide your own competing reinforcer.

Finally, once the dog knows the behaviour reliably you can then associate it with an English cue word you of your choosing. However, please remember, dogs will always find it easier to understand hand signals than words and under pressure the verbal cue is the first thing to become less reliable. In other words, yes you guessed it, the verbal cue has to be reinforced more with treats.

Is it just bribery?

Bribery has negative connotations and as such is not a healthy mind set for any relationship, canine or human. We all respond to reinforcement and it is no different for dogs. The assumption that dogs should obey humans simply through “respect” has no basis in behavioural science. If you are using the treats with good timing and consistency, it is pure communication, not bribery. Us dog trainers are so passionate about it because we have seen its power so many times and you are paying us for this expertise, so please trust us.

A quick word about using something BAD. Most of us are modern and kind enough to not be using shock collars and choke chains. Most of us will have shouted at our dog in an emergency. Its ok we are only human and want to keep our dogs safe.

Please be aware that your dog will see things like being shouted at and grabbed by the collar as BAD. Save it for those emergencies. If you use it as systematic training on a daily basis there will be fall out. Your dog will not be behaving as they respect you, they will be behaving you as they fear you and will want to avoid the BAD thing such as being shouted at and being grabbed by the collar. This does not tell them what you want them to do instead, which will lead to confusion, anxiety and less willingness to try new behaviours, which will hamper all training in the long run. They will also associate the BAD thing with you forever more, which is not the reason any of us get a dog.