To effectively use positive reinforcement to train your dog, you need to understand the difference between bribing and rewarding. Bribing a dog occurs when the treat or reward is shown up front before the behavior is requested or while the dog starts his behavior in response. Bribing often occurs when people call their dog.
Someone might say, “Come” and not get the result they are looking for, so they show a treat to their dog or shake a treat jar. Then, their dog comes to them. Bribing is counter-productive and will degrade or ruin responses. If a dog is doing behaviors solely because the payoff is visible, then there will be sluggish, inconsistent responses at best.
Savvy trainers teach their dog to do behaviors and that the frequency and quality of the reward will be based on their performance.
Strategies to Prevent Bribing Shape Behaviors
Watch for behaviors that look like the behavior that you want your dog to do and periodically reward the partial behavior. This will motivate your dog to do the behavior on his own. An example of this strategy is to shape “Come”. Work with your dog in a safe, enclosed area and walk away from your dog. If he follows you, say, “Yes” and give him a treat. Walk away again and wait for him to walk a little closer the next time before marking his behavior with a “Yes” and a treat.
When he is doing the behavior reliably, you can then say, “Come” before he starts moving towards you and he should make the connection that that cue is the predictor of a reward if he moves towards you. The motivation occurs because of the anticipation of the treat based on the cue, not seeing the reward upfront.
With every behavior that I teach, I have a backup “helper” in mind in case the dog doesn’t do the behavior on his own. They are all gentle ways to help the dog make the connection between the cue and the behavior and avoid bribing. Many repetitions of behaviors result in strong, conditioned responses. There are many helpers that you can use for teaching, “Come”.
Say, “Come” one time and then use any of the following helpers:
- Gently pull the leash (no jerking)
- Tap your leg
- Run the other way
- Crouch down (this works great, especially with puppies)
Then, reward your dog after he comes to you even if you helped him. Then, move a few feet away from him and call him again. You may have to use helpers a few times, but eventually your dog should start coming to on his own, without bribing!
Use Really Great Treats or Toys as Rewards
If you reward with fantastic treats or toys, then your dog will be more motivated to do behaviors on cue. This is basic animal learning theory: motivation is increased based on the quality of the payoff for the animal. An animal in the wild will stalk and hunt all day for the possibility of a meal. If you prove to your dog that he might get a tasty morsel if he does a behavior, then he will be more motivated to do that behavior. These are just the basics of motivation and rewards. This is a big, fascinating topic.