A client recently told me she didn’t want to use food as a reward anymore. She has a five-month-old large-breed, energetic puppy, but she has decided he can start to “obey” now and no longer should need reinforcement for the correct behavior. High standards! Sure, some dogs are such focused learners that they can fool you into thinking they understand all they’ve been taught. But why not reward even those learners, especially in difficult scenarios?? Despite what we might wish, they aren’t doing what we ask out of love. Let’s pay them!
Reinforcing good choices at least sometimes is such a motivator. Humans do some tasks with no reward, but we have more drive to succeed if there is a paycheck. Certainly your dog doesn’t need a treat for a Learned Behavior all the time if the circumstances are easy for him–and he really is reliable with the behavior. Praise is always a correct choice, though. If during training you’ve teamed up your treats with praise, Sam knows he’s made the right choice even without a cookie. If your dog truly knows a cue and delivers reliably, you may not even need to reward for his doing what you ask—unless the situation is very difficult and he succeeds. For instance, if your dog wants to chase a squirrel and you ask for a “down” and get it, throw a TREAT PARTY! Super hard.
Rewards are not bribes. If you do need to have food or a ball in your hand in order to keep Sam responding, try instead delivering the reward after he’s given what you’ve requested. Quickly, within two seconds of his correct response reach into your treat pouch so he knows exactly what the reward is for. Soon, you should be able to wean by using even a pretend treat once in a while. “Imaginary cookies” with praise can be very successful.
Are you being too stingy? Sometimes expectations are just too high, and your dog may not be ready for treats to stop. Treating once in a great while can also keep Sam’s motivation high. There’s nothing wrong with feeding your dog, anyway. He’s focused, he’s happy, and you’re happy. You can mix in his regular food so kibble smells like his favorite treats, and calories aren’t a problem–and you can even cut back his regular meal size if you need.
A trainer I’m friends with says, “Why not treat ALWAYS for coming when called?” It’s so important that reinforcement is essential. Pay up, mama!