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Positive Reinforcement: Stop Bribing, Start Rewarding

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The biggest criticism that I hear about using positive reinforcement for training is that the dog is no longer doing anything unless he is shown the treat. Positive reinforcement has become synonymous with bribing. It is simply not being done correctly.

In positive reinforcement training you begin with a lure. The lure is what guides the dog into a position or gets the dog’s attention. It is the very first step in training. A lure can be anything that your dog will follow. I like to start with their food and then in some cases using treats (for higher distraction areas). You can use anything: toys or that your dog adores.

Here’s the kicker: You HAVE to REMOVE the lure after about 6-12 trials. This makes sure that your dog is not over dependent on the lure and does not become a treat addict! Put it away, make sure it is of your dog’s vision. But still make sure to reward your dog!

Wait? What is the difference between the lure and the reward?

  • A lure is usually presented before a behavior, mainly to entice the dog to perform something. It is used to teach a dog a new word. It is important that the lure is removed from training as soon as the dog has the basic movement down.
  • A bribe is offered to the dog before the dog does a behavior, but after the behavior is learned – usually 6-12 trials after the behavior was first introduced. A bribe is offered to a dog who knows how to do something but does not want to do it. It can present a huge problem to the dog and their training.
  • A reward is an award for the dog after he preforms correctly. It is something that is NOT first presented to the dog. The dog is asked something, does it, and then gets the reward for preforming the correct behavior: such as a treat, petting them, or a toy.

To avoid bribing your dog, practice commands without showing him treats or rewards. After the dog preforms correctly, give him a reward or pet him and give him love.

The one difference is when you are making your dog work for something:

  • Making a dog lay down and stay before being fed.
  • Doing commands during play.
  • Waiting by the door before going out on a walk.
  • Sitting before jumping on the sofa.

Is it too late to change your treat addict? No it is not. Go back to the beginning by using the basic steps for each command with treats and after a few remove the lure. But make sure you still reward them. Use life rewards, like going on walks,  petting them, allowing them to jump on the sofa, or getting dinner instead of treats. You also need to stop rewarding sub-par behavior once your dog is more advanced in his training.

Many people start taking away rewards way too soon from their dog. You do need to stop luring your dog and showing them treats before they are doing commands, but you should still continue to reward your dog. Your dog should not worry about you withholding anything when they do not perform how you want them to.

You also need to give your dog time to process what you just asked them, especially for dogs who are anxious or worried. When your dog is doing something new or perhaps frightening to them, remember to give them time and encouragement through the choices.

After your dog learns the command, you need to decide what level of proficiency you will reward and how good of a reward they will receive. Give different valued treat to reflect the quality of his performance.  During Differential Reinforcement, the dog is given different valued rewards that reflect the quality of the performance. This means that when your dog kind of listens to you, you might want to do a small reward and then repeat the exercise. Versus when your dog performs exceptionally, you would want to make a big deal about it.

The most important part is that your dog still gets acknowledgement no matter how he performs.

Never force your dog or puppy into any position like sitting or lying down when training. If you force your dog or puppy into a sit, they learn to sit to avoid being hurt. You do not want that kind of a relationship with your dog. You want your dog to sit when asked because he is happy to do so and enjoys it. Pushing a dog into a sit or down can injure him especially if he has arthritis or old injuries.

There is a movement even in police dog work of using only non-compulsive techniques. Victoria Stillwell does work with police dogs and military dogs using only positive reinforcement. If they do not need harsh treatment, your dog does not need to either.