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:
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.
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? When your dog has hit that "maintenance" stage (see last email) 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.
Food for thought!