Will I Have to Use Treats Forever

Will I have to use treats forever?

I often think about this question because I get it all the time. I guess it doesn’t really bother me that I have to always have food in my pouch with the poop bags…so I’ve never really worried much about this with my own dogs. 

I have decided that for the rest of my dog’s life, I want to be able to continue creating fantastic associations with things and rewarding the behaviour I want to see repeated. The truth of the matter is this:

  1. When it comes to associations (classical conditioning) if Pavlov stopped feeding after ringing the bell, it would take a number of repetitions before the dog stopped drooling. The association would become “disconnected” because the bell no longer predicts food. 
  2. When it comes to consequences (operant conditioning) if Skinner stopped providing food pellets when the pigeon pecked the correct button, the pigeon would stop pecking that button altogether after a number of repetitions. 

So…why would we stop? We know, according to the laws of learning, that both associations and consequences must be maintained! 

What does this mean for us? Well, it means that even when we have met our goals, we will still need to be on our game, reinforcing desired behaviours and maintaining positive associations. 

Does that mean “food forever”? Maybe. Maybe not! Why not change it up? Broaden your dog’s currency list. Do they love toys? Tug? Bum-scratches? Ear-rubs? Jogging away a few steps? Doing a trick? Jumping in the air to bop your hand with their nose? When your dog has hit that “maintenance” stage you can start to play with various reinforcements to see if one works, or maybe a rotation might work best! 

I know it’s easy to get into the groove and think “well, my dog learned to do that and I don’t have to reward them anymore” but we have to remember the two points above. We can switch our reinforcement schedule to something a little less…consistent, but we have to be sure to watch closely in case the change convinces the dog that the behaviour not worth reinforcing is not worth performing. 

Courtesy of Lumen Learning

So what’s the answer?

The answer is “yes and no”. Yes because it is the fastest, most efficient, and most effective way of training any animal, but once you’ve taught the behaviour, you can phase out the food and replace it with alternate reinforcers.

What are those? Well, I’m glad you asked. Reinforcers are anything the animal will work to obtain. How simple is that?!

Think about it in your terms. What do you work for? Yes, you work for your paycheque (let’s call that “treats”), but what else do you work to obtain? These can be small things or big things – they don’t have to be the same for everyone as we’re all motivated differently.

With Salinger, he has so many reinforcers that it’s hard to keep track! Food is a big one for him for sure, and I’m happy to use it. If he’s really jazzed up about something outside, I can also use the leash or a tug toy to reinforce him for something like eye contact – a few tugs and a “drop it” is enough to convince him that eye contact is worth giving me. If there’s a great smelling fire hydrant coming up, he might pull towards it, I slow to a stop and ask him for a “touch” – when he bumps my hand, I say “okay!” and together we jog to the hydrant so he can have a good sniff. He might pick up a wood chip and I ask him for a “drop it” and when he does, instead of feeding him a piece of food, I tell him “get it!” and he can actually HAVE the wood chip to crunch and spit out (or sometimes he eats it).

For me, if I’m teaching a seminar, I’m not actually working for the money; that isn’t critical to me in that scenario. I’m working to obtain connection – I love looking at the faces in an audience and seeing the lightbulbs go on above people’s heads. I love making people laugh as they learn something new or at least learn to look at something a different way. If I’ve done that, I’ve been reinforced. And if I’ve been reinforced, I will do it again and again!

See? There are so many things your dog will work to obtain – we just have to pause for a moment and ask ourselves a few questions:

  • what is it that my dog wants right now?
  • is it safe for me to provide access to that?
    • if yes, then what is the most likely behaviour that s/he can perform in this moment?
    • if no, then how can I make it up to him/her so s/he doesn’t feel ripped off?

Alternate reinforcers are incredibly powerful. So powerful that food often won’t work if you try to use it once you’ve started using an alternate reinforcer.

Your dog decides what is reinforcing. You do not.

That’s why the questions above are so paramount!

Let’s give this a try and see what your dog finds most reinforcing! Start by practicing a favourite behaviour of your dog’s just so you can get the hang of it in an easier environment.