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Dog’s Eye View: You get what you pay for

“Given the choice, all creatures tend to do things that are most rewarding to them.” (Patricia Barlow-Irick, Ph.D. “How 2 Train A _fill in the blank”, Barlow/Irick, 2012)

When we’re teaching students how to use food while teaching new behaviors to their dog, sooner or later the question will come up, “When can I stop using food treats when I train my dog?’’

A strongly held belief is, “Shouldn’t my dog just do this because I say so?” Whoever said that?



We use food as a reward/reinforcer for behavior we want to see more of when we train dogs. This is not how I learned to train dogs in the 1950s and 1960s. Back then we used “collar corrections” (jerk the leash) to indicate to the dog that what he just did was wrong (not wanted). And we refrained from “collar correction” using just a verbal praise to indicate that what he just did was right.

If we were accurate in our timing, the dog could try to figure out what he was supposed to do while learning to avoid pain; not the best learning environment and hard on the dog/human relationship.



If you’re teaching your dog to sit, offering her several tiny treats in rapid succession within a second after she sits is a quick way to communicate to her that, yes, that’s the behavior that pays.

Treats are a universal language. Pretty soon your dog will begin to offer this behavior on her own because she’s learned from past experience that a treat is forthcoming after she sits in front of you. This is clear and pleasant communication between two species.

As your dog becomes proficient in her sit behavior in different locations (many weeks), you can begin offering treats at random and then start using “life rewards” instead. A life reward works by giving your dog some object (toy) or activity (playing fetch, petting, cuddling) that she values as well as food.

A well-known behaviorist, Kathy Sdao, in her book, “Plenty in Life is Free” (Dogwise Publ., 2012), described what she calls “sacred cows.” She uses this term to mean that we tend to embrace, defend and not let go of long-held theories or statements even though they may not necessarily be true.

A simple example might be our personal convictions about food. Many eating “rules” that we abide by as adults may have come from our parents, friends or even advertising. As we know, research has debunked a lot of our food-related sacred cows.

Even though so much science-based training information is now available in popular media, it’s somewhat surprising to me that the sacred cow, “dogs should just do what we say for no other reason than they are the dog and we are the human,” has persisted among so many people, in so many walks of life.

You can build a beautiful two-way line of communication with your dog by implementing a strong history of reinforcement (treats/toys) for the best behavior that supports who you are as a team. These behaviors can then become tools she can use to have some say about what occurs in her environment.

Treats and toys are the common currency of dog training. Remember to be very specific about which behavior you’re paying for and be generous.


Sandra Kruczek is a certified professional dog trainer at Total Teamwork Training with over 25 years of experience. She can be reached at http://www.totalteamworktraining.com.


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