Is Treat-less Training the Way to Go?
Q: In your view, what is the best way to train a dog? We’ve used a trainer who is totally against treat training. He believes in body language and tone of voice only. His method seems to work wonderfully for him (he is a retired police dog trainer) and some of his followers. I must say I pride myself in being a reasonably intelligent person and I’m very dedicated and hardworking when it comes to training my dog. However, I’ve not been very successful with the no-treat training, which has been quite discouraging. We also know that most people (apparently!) swear by training with treats. What do you think?—Vera Dolan
A: In the traditional “body language, tone of voice only” style of training, once a dog has learned a behaviour but doesn’t respond properly, he receives a correction in the form of a choke chain jerk or similar aversive technique. Do dogs learn that way? Sure. Is it pleasant for them? Not so much. And there can be fallout from the stress caused by corrections. Also, because most dog owners do not have the timing of a professional, their dogs are often corrected at the wrong time, which can lead to confusion and even create unfortunate associations, thereby causing further problems.
For training to be effective, non-coercive, and pleasant, the dog must want to cooperate. This is achieved by providing adequate motivation. For most dogs, food is extremely motivating, easy to use, and keeps the dog’s focus. If the owner’s timing isn’t the best, the worst that happens is that the dog receives an extra treat.
Some owners are concerned that their dogs will become dependent on food. But there is a difference between bribery—waggling a treat so a dog will come, for example—and proper reward-based training. Once a dog understands and has practiced a behaviour, treats should become less plentiful. A schedule of random reinforcement can then be applied, where instead of the dog receiving a treat each time he performs a behaviour correctly, he’s rewarded on an unpredictable schedule. Like a slot machine, this generates an anticipatory eagerness to keep playing the game. Real life rewards should also be introduced. For example, a dog sits at the door before he gets a walk, or he must sit and wait before being released to eat a meal.
Unfortunately, there is a lingering attachment in some circles to the older, traditional training methods where a dog is expected to do things “because we say so.” Modern trainers understand that motivating dogs with what is valuable to them is just as effective, if not more so, than using punishment. Reward-based training has the added benefit of creating a bond of trust between dog and owner. So keep up the good work!
Nicole Wilde is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer who lectures worldwide on canine behaviour. She is the author of nine books, including Help for Your Fearful Dog and Don’t Leave Me! She can be found at facebook.com/ NicoleWildeAuthor and twitter.com/NicoleWilde.