Lure? Bribe? Reward?

Do you ever feel like all you do is bribe your dog with food? You want him to come to you so you grab a tasty treat and wave it around until he notices and comes running for it? You want him to drop the sock in his mouth so you get a piece of chicken and tempt him with that?

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t … how frustrating is that! You might even wish he would just do what you ask him to simply because you spend your life providing for him and he should really have a bit more loyalty and love for you!!

Dogs have their own needs, their own priorities and their own ways of thinking. They may love us and be bonded to us but it doesn’t change the fact that they have different motivations in life.

Dogs find reinforcement everywhere, it could be chasing the squirrel in the park, sniffing every piece of grass or, maybe most annoyingly, barking! Sometimes we can easily outweigh these motivations, but other times we can end up in what feels like a battle of wills.

We all have our own hierarchies of motivation, some people will be driven more by money, but for others it’s relationships, or success at work. Motivations aren’t static, they can change daily, hourly or across lifetimes. For example, if you’ve just eaten a big meal, being asked to do something in exchange for food probably won’t cut it. Or if you’ve just won the lottery you probably wouldn’t worry about skipping work and losing your pay for a few days!

This is exactly the same for dogs and it’s the reason why we can’t always get a response from them. We quickly label our dogs as ‘stubborn’ or as having ‘selective hearing’ but really, it’s all a matter of motivation and priorities. If you’re waving a treat in front of your dog’s face when he’s just seen a squirrel in the park, his priority is unlikely to be the food… in that moment his only care is for the squirrel.

Similarly, if he knows what he’s going to get from you then he will know whether or not it’s worth his energy immediately. In human terms, you may not mind working longer hours once in a while in return for a grateful thank you and no extra pay, but if this started to happen every day, you would soon get frustrated and question it.

Likewise, a dog may come back a few times when you call him and receive a ‘good boy’ and pat on the head, but he will soon tire of this and its value will be easily outweighed by other things.

It gets frustrating when your dog will only listen to you if they know you have something for them, using food as an example, he knows you have a treat so he will sit, lie down, spin around and do anything you ask, but when you don’t have that treat in your hand, or you have a ‘boring’ treat he looks at you blankly and walks away. ‘What’s the point’, he says, and you scream in frustration, ‘WHY won’t he just listen to me!?’

This is the unfortunate result of bribing your dog. When working with rewards in training, we can become so reliant on showing the dog what we have and then asking them to do something, it works well in the early stages of training but you need to quickly phase out this bribe so your dog isn’t dependent on it. You should never aim to remove food rewards completely; they will always be an important motivator but you can reduce the dependency.

A few simple changes can make a big difference…

Stop waving the treat in his face

Don’t show the reward until after your dog has performed the behaviour you’ve asked for

  • For example, put a treat on the table where your dog can’t see it, call him to you, tell him ‘good boy!’ and then reach for the treat and present it to him

  • Without showing him a treat, ask him for a behaviour he knows well (e.g. sit). If he responds, GREAT, quickly mark it (say yes) and reward him. If he’s unable to respond then there’s a strong possibility he doesn’t understand what you’re asking him. When he knows you have a treat, he may just try a behaviour to get the reward, rather than actually performing on cue.

  • In this case, you need to go back to basics and teach him the behaviours again, but without the treat acting as your bribe!

No more treats in your hand … get rid of the lure!

  • Luring is helpful when teaching new behaviours but your dog can become reliant on this so rather than always holding a treat in your hand, keep it in your pocket until the behaviour has been performed

  • Start by luring with a treat in your hand, but after a few repetitions, show the lure with an empty hand

  • Reduce your lure by using a more subtle movement

Increase your criteria and create some behaviour chains

  • Frustration tolerance is an important skill for dogs to learn, one way to improve this is to ask for several behaviours before they receive the reward

  • Making your dog work a little harder for the reward will encourage him to respond faster and more reliably in order to gain the reward

  • This puts more focus onto the behaviour chain and lessens the focus on the reward

Keep it varied, random and unpredictable

  • When we want to create a stronger behaviour, we use a variable reinforcement schedule where the rewards come randomly and unpredictably

  • In human terms, people will continually try to win on a slot machine because the intermittent reward keeps them trying … you never know if you will win 1p or £100

  • For dogs, they will keep coming back to you if they know sometimes they get a piece of kibble, sometimes it’s a fuss and sometimes it’s a handful of chicken … it’s worth putting the effort in if sometimes the reward is super amazing!

  • Do you find yourself giving your dog a treat every time you ask him to sit? Quite possibly not, but ‘sit’ is probably still his most reliable command? This is because you have put ‘sit’ on a variable reward schedule… there is no predictability to when the reward will come, it’s so random that he keeps offering the behaviour in hope that this time he will be rewarded.