“I shouldn’t have to give my dog a treat when he comes. He should do it because he loves me.”
Oh, how these words make us trainers cringe! This common and persistant myth that dogs should always be perfectly obedient just because their owners told them to is ridiculous and is harmful to the human-canine bond.
This myth seems to have originated from compulsive training techniques. With traditional techniques, a dog was praised when he made the correct choice and was corrected (punished) if he didn’t comply. Dogs trained using these methods do indeed work for praise alone without the need for a more substantial reward like food or a toy, but they do so because praise serves as a safety cue.
These dogs learn that when they’re being praised, they’re not in imminent danger of a correction. While praise in these situations certainly functions as a reinforcer, it is more importantly a conditioned marker signal that means “nothing bad is going to happen right now,” much the same way a clicker serves as a marker signal for “something good is about to happen.”
Make no mistake, dogs who work for praise alone are no more loyal or devoted to their handlers than dogs who work for treats or toys. Their motivation is just different. Food doesn’t cheapen your relationship with your dog in any way, and many would argue that using food treats actually increases your bond. Eating is a great bonding activity: couples go out to eat together when they’re dating, and children who regularly sit down and eat dinner with their parents are more likely to talk to them about serious issues.
Dogs are not robots, and expecting a robot-like response from them is unrealistic.
Consider your own relationships with loved ones. If your significant other asks you to get him or her a soda, will you always do it? If you tell them to get off the couch and get it themself, does that mean you don’t love them anymore? Love and obedience are not the same thing, and a healthy relationship acknowledges this.
If your dog doesn’t obey you, he has a good reason for it. Scientists sometimes say “the rat is always right,” since animals don’t lie. Your dog may be confused, tired, distracted, or sore. He may not be motivated to do as you ask because you haven’t built up a history of reinforcement and thus haven’t yet explained to him why he should comply with your requests. Regardless, his disobedience does not mean he loves you any less.
The bottom line is that it’s okay to “pay” your dog for listening to you by giving him a reward such as food or a toy. Would you keep going to work if your boss told you that he would no longer pay you, since you know what your job is now?
This isn’t to say that it’s not possible to fade food treats and teach your dog to work for you for the joy of the work itself (and we’ll cover these topics in future posts). However, as with all relationships, the foundation must be laid first. If your dog doesn’t truly enjoy training with you in exchange for toys or treats, how can you expect him to enjoy working for nothing but your positive regard? Let’s give dogs a break, and not expect more from them than we’d expect from other loved ones in our lives. Everyone will be so much happier with this mindset… especially your dog.