When you’re using treats or toys to reward a dog for good behaviour, you will often hear people make comments like ‘it’s all bribery’ or ‘no wonder he’s listening - you’ve got treats!’. Comments like this miss the fundamental point of training. We aren’t simply trying to bribe or distract our dogs so they behave, we’re trying to teach new behaviours and most importantly, ensure our dogs feel positive and relaxed. The use of rewards in training is the key to changing the underlying emotions and motivations behind behaviours.
With this in mind, the timing of rewards and how they are used is essential. Giving a treat at the wrong time or using it to literally bribe or distract your dog, won’t necessarily be tackling the underlying issues, it will merely be masking a problem.
While positive reinforcement is unlikely to do any harm or cause distress to your dog, it can be used ineffectively if the timing or the set-up of the situation is wrong.
There is a time and a place for using treats or toys to distract a dog, but we must remember this isn’t actually contributing to behaviour change or truly changing how the dog feels.
It’s a bit like using painkillers to numb the pain of a repeating injury.
The painkillers may mask the pain but they don’t treat the underlying cause, without taking steps to resolve the injury through physio or other medical interventions, the injury will still exist. Painkillers may be an essential part of recovery, but they are just one small part and the priority is to repair and resolve the actual cause.
This is just like when we want to change our dog’s behaviour, rather than a physical injury, we are looking at emotional states and working to change how our dogs feel.
Why distraction isn’t enough
Distracting your dog from seeing something which excites, frustrates or scares him, may mean he doesn’t display difficult behaviours, but it also means he’s never having the opportunity to learn a different response.
In order to create new associations and build confidence or more control, your dog needs to SEE the potential trigger and learn to respond in a different manner. We can look at a couple of typical examples…
The Fearful Dog
A dog who is fearful of other dogs may react to the sight of them with barking and lunging, naturally we find this embarrassing, hard to control, or dangerous (especially with a big dog), so it can be tempting to wave a treat under their nose and keep them from seeing the other dog nearby.
This may work at times, but there will always be moments where it fails, maybe your dog decides he doesn’t really want the treat today, or the other dog gets too close, or you can’t get your treat out in time. Not to mention that your dog is still feeling stressed and fearful when he sees other dogs.
In comparison, using rewards to pair the sight of other dogs with something positive, and to teach your dog how to gain distance from the scary dog and how to look to you for support, will not only help your dog feel more confident and in control, and therefore less fearful, it will also give you tools to use when faced with a situation where distraction simply isn’t an option.
Timing is important here, you need to be rewarding your dog for looking at the other dog, but from a distance where he feels safe. This means he’s learning “other dogs = good things”. It takes time, but your dog will gradually be able to see other dogs and feel much more relaxed and safe.
You can also teach cues to help your dog move away if another dog gets too close (e.g. a let’s go cue for a quick U-turn).
These methods help change your dogs underlying emotional state by showing him he doesn’t need to feel fearful of other dogs because you are supporting him, you will move him away if he starts to feel worried, and the sight of other dogs is actually a really positive thing.
This doesn’t mean your dog will learn to love dogs and never feel fearful, for many dogs that’s simply not possible, but he will be able to feel more relaxed and cope positively with the sight of other dogs, in a way that using distraction or bribery would never achieve.
The Excited/Frustrated Dog
Dogs who find other dogs very exciting may display similar behaviours like barking and lunging, they may also try to rush over to other dogs or pull to get to them. If you were to try and just distract them in these moments, they’re likely to feel even more frustrated and start to decline your attempts to bribe them with treats.
For these dogs, they need to learn to remain in a calmer state of mind when faced with other dogs, but also how to interact calmly and how to ignore other dogs when needed. Distracting your dog is unlikely to ever teach any of these skills!
Just like with a fearful dog, it’s important to pair the sight of other dogs with a good reward, this means they are learning to see another dog and look to you for something good.
This can be progressed to using interactions with dogs as a reward, once your dog is able to see dogs and respond calmly, you can begin to approach appropriate dogs and work on calm greetings.
With excited or frustrated dogs, it’s also key for them to learn to cope with not interacting. This may mean you walk past while rewarding your dog but without fully distracting them, you still want them to see the other dog but to keep looking back to you too. Methods like DMT or ‘look-reward’ are perfect for this skill.
Is distracting ever the right thing to do?
Yes. Sometimes it is the best option.
There will always be times when you need to simply survive a situation, perhaps your dog isn’t ready for it yet or you’re both having a bad day and just need to get through it. As long as distracting isn’t your go-to method all the time, it can work as a great back-up in difficult moments.
There is nothing wrong with sometimes bribing your dog with a treat on their nose so they don’t see the dog passing behind them, or holding a treat for them to lick while a potential trigger goes past. If you use it once in while, you’ll also find it works better because your dog isn’t creating negative associations.
When bribery or distracting methods are used too much, our dogs tend to get wise to them. They start to realise when we hold the treat under their nose, there must be a dog nearby and they need to panic, or they decide to ignore you in favour of playing with the dog.
This is because we haven’t actually been dealing with the underlying causes, so our dogs are still feeling exactly the same and are no longer fooled by bribery every time.
However, if we are working on the underlying emotions and helping our dogs enjoy looking to us for support and guidance, using the occasional bit of bribery and distraction isn’t going to hurt!
Next someone criticises you for using treats to train your dog, you can explain how you are in fact working to change their underlying emotional state and create new positive associations. You can say confidently, you are not simply bribing your dog or masking the problems, you’re working through it effectively and happily together!
Written by Naomi White
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