To Bribe or not to Bribe?

There is a school of thought in dog training that abhors rewarding with treats because they claim that’s BRIBING the dog to display good behavior.  I prefer to think of treats and other rewards as benefits the dog can EARN by performing a behavior on cue.  To me, a bribe is offering and/or delivering a treat BEFORE the behavior — in other words, before it has been “paid for!”

I also use treats to lure a dog into new behaviors.  In this situation the treat IS proffered before the behavior happens, but it isn’t delivered until that behavior is accomplished.  However, there can come a time when that same treat proffered as the lure becomes a bribe. Once the dog learns what the cue means and will obey it 9 out of 10 times, she doesn’t need the treat as a learning motivation any longer.  If your dog won’t obey a command unless you have a treat in your hand, then the treat has become a bribe.

To avoid this situation we need to wean our dogs off the food rewards.  There are several ways to do this.  The first one I use is to “lure” with the same hand gesture, but WITHOUT a treat in hand and then deliver the treat with the OTHER hand.  The treat could have been in that hand behind my back or be taken from a pocket or container AFTER the dog obeys the cue.

The second method I use is making the dog work a little harder and perform more than one behavior for the one reward.  I “mark” every behavior with a “Yes!” — this lets the dog know that it has, indeed, obeyed correctly.  (Remember that “Yes!” is a promise of a treat to come — it doesn’t have to be delivered immediately.)  However, I start by only asking the dog to obey two commands before getting a treat, gradually working up to 3, 4, 5.  Also, I vary the number so the dog can’t predict when the treat is coming!  The theory behind this is, not knowing when the pay-off is coming, the dog is more invested in working.  It’s the same psychological reason we keep pulling that handle on the slot machine, hoping that the jackpot will come THIS time!

A third strategy for weaning a dog off treats is to start using “real life” rewards.  This means rewarding with praise, petting, a toy, play, or any other resource.  It works best when used in “real life” situations instead of official training session.  For example — asking the dog to SIT before putting the food bowl on the floor, DOWN before getting on the bed, to STAY for a few moments before opening the door so she can go outside.

There are times to use a good, old-fashioned bribe, though!  I use bribes every day when asking a dog to go into its crate.  Now, the dog has learned the cue, but she is fully aware that going in the crate means she will be shut inside and (probably) left alone in the house.  This isn’t a strong, positive motivation, and I want the dog to ALWAYS feel happy about going in the crate.  So, I try to “sweeten” the deal by throwing a dog biscuit in the crate as I give the order to go inside.  This becomes a recognized ritual  When I pull “those” dog biscuits out of the container, most dogs run to get in the crate before I have time to get there with the treat.  Officially, this is a “bribe” because the treat is offered before the behavior, but I’m willing to use anything that gets such a positive response from the dog!

I’m also in favor of bribes if the safety of the dog is in question.  If your dog slips her leash, and doesn’t come right back to you, that isn’t the time to work on her RECALL skills.  Get a big ole dog biscuit out and wave it around enticingly!  Or if she’s busy eating a piece of paper — pull out a hot dog and ask her to TRADE!  Trading can usually be managed by getting the dog away from the “bad” object and then asking for a SIT before giving the treat.  If you can do this, you’ve managed to make her work for the treat so it’s not really, totally a bribe.

The important thing to remember about bribes is that the dog isn’t learning anything (except how to exploit the system.)  Now, in my crate example, the dog THINKS she is “working” me, but I’ve managed the situation so I get the behavior I want offered willingly.  Other situations abound where dogs can really take advantage of their owners!  I once saw a woman placing treats every two feet to get her dog to go outside into the yard to go potty.  That is a case where the dog has learned how to “play” her owner!

I guess it all comes down to if you are the player or the playee!  Dogs are masters at working the system — any system!  Start by working all known cues (that the dog can perform 9 out of 10 times) gradually weaning off food rewards.   Examine WHY you’re giving a treat in other situations.  Is the dog working for it, or has she figured out how to push your buttons to get a reward for free!

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