Food as a Reward and the Bribe Trap

December 17, 2013

Reinforcements (or rewards) can be anything the dog likes or wants.  In the beginning we use food to reward because it is a primary resource and for most young dogs (and even older ones) it is the most important thing.  In other words food is something that the dog or puppy depends on for its survival.  It is also easy to manipulate and carry around with you – always on hand to reward anything your dog is doing that you like.  Dogs are learning ALL THE TIME – not just during your 10 or 15 minute formal training sessions.  Being able to reward good behaviour whenever it happens is a huge advantage when teaching your pup or dog acceptable vs unacceptable behaviour.


The other advantage of training with food in the early days is that it is a very valuable resource that you control.  Training with food strengthens the bond you have with your dog and improves the relationship.  As soon as he has learnt the correct behaviour and has also learnt the value of games and interactive play with you, the food rewards can be replaced with life rewards such as access to other dogs, games with you and favoured toys and also praise and petting.

Some people express concern about using food in training, worried they will create a dog who will only work if he knows there’s food.   This is on the assumption that commands drive behavior and that dogs have an innate “desire to please”.

 Jean Donaldson in her book “Culture Clash” has this to say about the subject Training with food in no way “…cheapens or ruins the bond you have with your dog.  It enhances that bond by associating you with one of the most potent unconditioned reinforcers on the planet.  The alternative to training with positive reinforcement is training with aversives.  Choose and stop agonizing”. 

The problems arise when the food is mis-used.  The trick is to make sure that food is being used as a reward and not a bribe. There’s a big difference!

The Bribe Trap

One of the things to avoid is that when your dog is not responding to a cue you will offer a bribe in the hope that taking the bribe will enourage the dog to respond to your cue.  Very often offering a bribe causes a resistant or distracted dog to perform the required behaviour.  However, the bribe also directly reinforces the refusal behaviour and with repeated bribery, the refusal behaviour may actually become stronger than the dog’s interest in obtaining the offered food bribe.  This of course results in the owner producing an even more enticing bribe the better to gain the dog’s compliance, resulting in even stronger refusal behaviour.  This is known as the “bribe trap”.  Very often the only way to get out of this trap is to start training the behaviour from scratch, using completely different cues and rewards.

One of the more insidious results of using bribery to get behaviour to happen is that because it seems to work initially, the trainer’s bribing behaviour is reinforced making it more difficult for the trainer to “change his or her ways”.  When using operant conditioning to train animals we need to always remember that operant conditioning works for both the trainer and the trainee!  Both trainer and dog are both “operating” on the environment or one another to reach a desired consequence.

How is Luring different from the Bribe?

One way to fast track learning a behaviour is to use a method popularized by Ian Dunbar and known as “Lure and Reward” training.  On the surface this may seem a lot like bribery, but if the whole process is examined the difference is obvious.  With Lure and Reward training the food is held close to the dog’s nose and manipulated in such a way that the dog in following the food “lure” will end up in the required position and so earn himself the “reward”.  After just a few repetitions the food lure is no longer necessary because the dog will respond to the hand-lure movement to get the reward.  Adding the verbal cue is then simply a matter of repeating the word or cue associated with the behaviour and fading the hand signal.

So, it is quite clear that the food “lure” or “bribe” is only used in the early learning phase of a behaviour.  It should not be necessary once the behaviour is learnt, is on cue and has been thoroughly proofed, to produce the food as a bribe.  If this is done then the trainer should question how thoroughly that specific behaviour has been trained.

And finally, some really good advice from trainer Sue Ailsby (

“My dog won’t…” and “My dog can’t…” should be followed either by an alarm bell or a training plan.

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