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.

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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 (http://sue-eh.ca/)

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


Recall – Come When Called

June 4, 2012

Puppies are great at coming when called.  I have yet to meet a young pup who doesn’t bound along joyously to its owner when called either for a treat, a game or a love.  Why then do so many dogs become hard of hearing as they reach puberty.  The recall and pulling on the leash are two of the most problematic behaviours for pet owners.

Training of the recall starts when our pups are very young.  Steven Lindsay has this to say about early training of the following and recall behaviour in young puppies:

“An area of interest for average dog owners regards active following and coming when called.  Long walks consisting of occasional surprise manoeuvres, exciting changes of pace, unexpected chase and counter-chase episodes, hide-and-seek games, punctuated with occasional opportunities for ball play or stick fetching – all facilitate the learning of appropriate “staying close” skills in puppies. 

Even if you have been careful to do all these things with your puppy, there are certain things that you may inadvertently have done to make your pup’s recall weak or even non-existent.

  • Have you ever called your pup to do something your pup doesn’t particularly like such as a bath, nail trim or medication, amongst others?
  • Have you called your pup from playing with other pups or dogs in the park and put him in the car to go home, or put him on a leash?
  • Have you ever spotted your dog doing something like digging up a precious plant and called him to you to give him a scolding?
  • If your pup ignores you do you simply carry on calling him over and over with no response eventually ending up yelling?
  • Do you call your dog and when he comes to you ignore him and continue chatting to your friend?

If we are guilty of any of these things we are, in effect, punishing our dog for coming when called.  Punishment does not have to be physically aversive.  Anything that is done to your dog that he doesn’t like such as bathing, going home when he’s having fun, a scolding, ignoring him are all punishment.  Punishment decreases the likelihood that the behaviour that is being punished will be repeated.  So, is it any wonder that now the recall “Fido, come!” predicts something unpleasant happening.

There are many things that we can do to maintain the wonderful recall that we had when our pups were little.  Bear in mind that before 12 or 14 weeks, you were the most interesting thing in your pup’s life.  But then puppy started realising that there were other even more interesting things in his environment such as interesting smells, other dogs, friendly people – the list is endless.

So, how do we make our recall behaviour strong?

  • We continue our obedience training no matter where we are so that the pup learns to work through all the distractions around him and focus on you.  And practise “Come” wherever you are, rewarding your pup by letting him go back and do whatever it is he was doing before you called.  (The Premack Principle).
  • Teach him to spin towards you whenever he hears you call his name and to respond to the “Come” command so that both these things predict something great is about to happen.
  • Make yourself the most interesting thing in your pup’s life.  Vary the rewards for the pup coming to you by feeding him extra special treats, play a game with him such as fetch or chase or tug, or hide and seek, or simply give him an extra special love or tummy rub.

One of the things to avoid is that when the pup is ignoring you and continuing to sniff or dig or play, is to offer a bribe.  Very often offering a bribe causes a resistant or distracted dog to come.  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 recall from scratch, using completely different cues and rewards.


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