Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Training with Treats: Why it isn't Cheating

I'm back from another unexpected blogging hiatus - this wasn't simple laziness on my part, or a lack of time. Shortly after my last post, a horse ran me over and I broke my wrist, making using the computer painful and frustrating. But the cast is off now and I am so excited to get back into writing!

One of the most common fears is that a dog will come to rely on treats and won't preform behaviors without a bribe. This fear certainly isn't unfounded.

In my humble opinion, dogs deserve a reward 95% of the time when they perform a correct behavior. Your dog really has no desire to practice down stays over and over again, so treats make your weird human desires bearable. Now I'm not saying dogs don't find training fun - mine certainly does - but rather that it's usually not something they'd choose to do on their own.

To put it quite simply: Would you put in a 40 hour work week if you weren't getting paid? Even if you really love your job, most people still expect to get paid for their effort.

I should also note that a dog's "salary" does not have to be entirely comprised of snacks. The reward can be playing with their favorite toy or a scratch in their favourite spot. Maizy works just as well for the promise of a game of fetch as she does for liver treats. 

So how do you get your dog to perform behaviours without treats? It's quite simple, really:
  • Practice, practice, practice. The more often your dog does a behaviour, the more likely the dog is to do that behaviour on "auto-pilot". This is the reason why most dog's are pretty reliable at sitting without a treat. Sit is by far the most practiced behaviour for most dogs.
  • Reward the practice. If your dog gets a treat 90 out of 100 sits, your dog isn't going to remember the ten times it didn't get a treat. 
  • Practice not getting a treat - once your dog is reliable with the behaviour, start reducing the amount of times your dog gets a treat. Give a treat every other time.
The more you train, the more your dog wants to work for you. Dogs love pleasing their owners and they quickly become "addicted" to training. When they do something correctly, you become happy. Dogs love this! The more you work with your dog, the more likely they will be able to preform for you without treats - simply because they like you. How great is that?

It is totally possible to train a dog without using treats, whether that treat is a piece of liver or a game of tug. However, I find that using treats is a) super easy and b) nicer for the dog than other methods. 

For a more scientific look into using treats, check out Dr. Sophia Yin's blog post "Why Cigarettes are More Addicting than Heroin and How It Applies to Dog Training"

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