Yes, But When Can I Stop Giving Treats?
People often ask me when they can stop giving treats to their dogs. Funny, no one ever asks me when they can stop punishing their dogs. Training happens along a spectrum from rewards to punishment. In my experience, people who stop rewarding prematurely end up punishing frequently. Invest in your dog’s behavior, one treat at a time, so that your dog is able to make good choices and be a good boy!
Most people see their dog successfully sit many times on cue at home and think their dog will sit when cued under any circumstance. “But he sits at home” is a statement I often hear in group classes. My response: “I believe you, and I’m glad we have that as a starting point!”
When dogs don’t respond to a cue in a distracting environment, people are often quick to punish their dogs. Is not responding to the cue the dogs’ fault or a training flaw? If you cue your dog and he does not respond within 3 seconds, what do you do? Instead of punishing your dog, I suggest waiting 10 seconds and then cuing your dog again. If he still doesn’t respond, stop cuing. Look around. Is there something in the environment competing for your dog’s attention? Does your dog know the behavior as well as you think he does? Was the cue initially trained with aversive techniques? Is your dog fearful? All of these things and more can affect your dog’s response to cues. Instead of punishing, find a way to help your dog succeed!
Behaviors that are rewarded become stronger and more reliable. Once your dog can sit perfectly on cue in your living room, it’s time to ask your dog a question: “Do you understand that you still should sit on cue no matter what is going on?” Since we can’t verbally ask dogs these questions, we ask them with training trials. Your training plan must include the systematic addition of duration, distraction, and distance. This is where the real fun begins!
Once you have a reliable cued behavior with duration, distraction, and distance, now you can be judicious about when you reward your dog. Sitting in the living room no longer makes the grade. Sitting outside while watching a squirrel, now THAT gets a treat, and lots of them.
So no, you’re not going to stop giving your dog treats. A better question to ask yourself is, “How exceptional does this behavior have to be before I give a treat?”
For more questions you might like to pose to your dogs, contact us at www.behaviorunited.com.
The video above is of our Teacher’s Pet client, Stella. Having seen the squirrel at the base of the tree, I planned on recording recall practice. When Stella saw the squirrel, she unexpectedly gave me voluntary attention, so I gave her treats for that before practicing a recall off of a squirrel. Both of these behaviors were exceptional!