Why Positive Reinforcement isn’t about Bribery and Treats

Whenever I meet people I’m really happy to tell them what I use and why, which in my opinion, is what every professional should want to do – even if the tools they choose to use are aversive.

The owner should always be aware of what you are doing and why what you are doing achieves (or should do) results. The first thing that usually gets fired back at me when I say I used food is ‘I don’t want to bribe my dog’ and my reply is always the same – ‘great, we’re on the same page then’.

Firstly, we should take into account what dogs would be doing if we were not in the picture. A recent study suggested that as much as 90% of a feral dog’s waking day is spent in search of food. So for me, it just makes complete sense to use their food to train them. And when I say train them I mean teach them how to act appropriately in society. Some of you may know that I actually do not own a dog bowl and to be honest I probably never will.

The biggest misconception about reward based training is that it only works with bribes and treats. Firstly we need to figure out the difference between a bribe and a reward. A bribe comes before an offered behaviour, and a reward comes after an offered behaviour. So shaking some treats to get your dog to come back would be a bribe whereas asking your dog to come back and then offering them a treat would be a reward. Arguably you do bribe puppies initially with some lure and reward type training but that can be phased out within the first session and it creates a clear communication system that we can both understand.

This is something I really want to stress – a reward doesn’t have to be a special treat. I use the dog’s daily allowance of kibble and a lot of the time I just condition them to do things without saying or asking them to do anything. I leave kibble around the house and whenever I see the dog doing something I like ie lying down calmly, I’ll simply toss them a piece of kibble. If they then get up and try to mug me for the food I’ll just ignore them and wait for them to do something else I prefer. There is no bribing involved at all I simply capture a behaviour and reward that behaviour, therefore increasing the likelihood of it happening again.

Food is the easiest to use so that’s why I recommend owners to start with that. Toys can also be huge rewards for some dogs, especially your collies, rotties, huskies, German shepherds, or any working type/active dog. Sometimes toys will trump food too, so in that case you won’t even need to use food.

And then we have life rewards – running off leash, playing with other dogs, sniffing bushes, chasing birds, digging holes, swimming in the sea and so on. All a reward is to your dog is something they enjoy doing. They decide what’s a reward not us. What you will find is life rewards are the dog’s biggest reinforcers. So trying to give your dog a piece of kibble in replacement of running around with other dogs just won’t work – even if you try bribing them.

This is how positive reinforcement can work: How many dogs sit to get their meal? I’m guessing most will do. How many dogs will pull to get to the park? A lot I’m guessing. For some reason we are so insistent on dogs sitting before they get their meal but we let them act like complete loonies to get to the park. It’s crazy! If your dog is jumping around, pulling on the lead, biting your trousers would you give them their dinner? Absolutely not! But why do we then let our dogs do that to get to the park? We positively reinforce the behaviours we really don’t want with the biggest rewards possible – you end up adding a positive outcome to pulling on the leash, barking at other dogs and lunging if you simply let them off leash when they do this. And for the people that tell me positive reinforcement doesn’t work for their dogs, it does, but probably for all the wrong reasons.

The phasing out stage is usually where people go wrong. They simply don’t phase the rewards (more specifically food) out. That’s why you get dogs doing things only if food is involved. We need to become like casinos not vending machines. Casinos are so effective at ‘training’ people to come back because you never know if you’re going to hit the big time but there’s a slight possibility you will. If a vending machine doesn’t give you what you want straight away you will leave and probably never go back (until it’s fixed). Yet how often do people go back to casinos even if they don’t win anything previously?

If you find reward based training isn’t working for you, that doesn’t mean ‘positive reinforcement’ doesn’t work. I am useless at maths and if I can’t get the answer I’m looking for using proven methods does that mean maths doesn’t work or I should be doing something different?


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Lewis Nicholls

Lewis is a dog trainer based in Wellington, NZ and he has a passion for training dogs using modern, scientifically proven, reward based methods. He likes to write articles and share his thoughts on dog training and behaviour in the hope that more people will start to use ethical, humane training methods and ditch the notion that people need to be the tough 'pack leader' in order to achieve results. Lewis has trained all sorts of dogs and unfortunately he did start out with a choke chain and rattle bottle. Thankfully, he has not used them in years and has had much more success using positive methods. A dog he has continually trained for the last 2 years is a Rottweiler X and he is proof that you do not need a firm hand to teach large breeds how to behave.