The Treatless Dog

The Treatless Dog
February 16, 2015 by Steve Duno
treatless dog

In a fit of boredom yesterday I watched a bevy of sheep herding videos, most starring that most fascinating of breeds, the Border Collie. Some involved seasoned dogs, while others showed pups and green dogs just learning their trade. The herder/trainers used white PVC pipe crooks, as well as whistles and their voice. Most used a circular pen, which, sans corners, helped keep the sheep moving.

And that’s it. No treat motivation at all: just audible direction and praise, and the occasional use of the crook to redirect the sheep or the dog. No punitive techniques, no saccharin pleas- just what was there in the pen.

Clearly, the dogs were born to it. They loved it. Even the pups seemed to know what to do. The shepherd simply guided, prodded, encouraged, and managed their natural instincts to herd. It was fun to watch, and a nice break from helping solve routine suburban dog aggression issues, or teaching a dog not to tear a sofa to shreds.

If these Border Collies could be persuaded to master their instinct to herd without the benefit of obsessive treating, then why couldn’t your average everyday dog be taught in the same fashion?

I’ve used treats for decades, to initiate behaviors, and to intermittently reinforce existing ones. The food drive is strong in dogs, so why not harness it? But I also feel that trainers today push the treats way too hard, and encourage their clients to do the same.

Trainers who base their techniques on the training of undomesticated cetaceans by trainers at Sea World believe that the best way into a dog’s mind is through its stomach. They claim that, if it works on a five ton orca, why wouldn’t work on a spaniel?

Whale trainers rely on fish and clicker reinforcement to train. It’s a “force-free” operant method, meaning there is no avoidance training, no punitive measures. When dealing with a five ton animal, how else would you persuade it other than through the use of fish bribes? You simply cannot cajole them to do anything they refuse to do. They can also swim rings around you, and well, eat you if they so choose. So, food bribes make sense.

But what of a domesticated animal like the dog? Food training, particularly when backed up with a secondary reinforcer such as a clicker, works well to create and shape new behaviors, and in some cases alter existing ones. The “click” marks the behavior at the precise moment it occurs, helping the animal understand exactly what is expected of it. It is a bridge between the behavior and the food reward. And it works quite well as an initiator of new behaviors.

But it’s not the best tool for modifying serious behavioral issues, particularly aggression in its many forms. I cannot tell you how many times I see tense people walking their anti-social dog around busy parks, struggling to juggle leash, clicker and treat pouch, as their dogs snap out at other dogs ambling by. “Distraction” training like this simply does not work, except to give these people false hope that they can defuse their dogs’ deep-seated fears simply by diverting them with food. Tell me: do you think you’d be calmed by a ham sandwich while your transatlantic flight plunges down into the Atlantic?

Though there is nothing wrong with treat training, understand that dogs are not lab rats or whales, but instead complex, sentient, domesticated creatures with psycho-pathologies as intricate and enigmatic as that of any human being. Those of us suffering from PTSD, OCD, or some other deep-seated phobia know that cures for these issues do not come overnight, but instead take years to manage. It’s no different for a dog, particularly for one who is deathly afraid of something, and couldn’t care less about the cookie you’re waving around.

Maybe, just maybe, the best way into a dog’s mind is not through its stomach, but through its heart.

Let me explain.

Years ago I had the privilege of living with one of the greatest dogs I’ve ever known- my uber dog Lou, the subject of Last Dog On The Hill. Found as a feral six month-old running with a pack of other ferals, the Rottie/GSD mix was spirited, smart, independent, and used to camaraderie from birth. Lou was a always team player, and, though a food lover, learned and performed his amazing array of behaviors more out of joy and friendship than for bones, cookies, dinners or other edible inducements. Like the Border Collies in those videos, Lou learned and performed because he wanted to, and because he loved it. And, more importantly, because he wanted to impress me.

He flat out adored me, and it showed. When I was attacked by beach hooligans in Venice, California in 1990, Lou, normally a sweet, loving dog, erupted into volcanic fury and ran them off. When I got caught in the middle of an armed robbery at a 7-Eleven the year after, he did the same, fending off an armed man who’d had the bad notion of stopping me from calling 911. Over the years he would defend me many times from aggressive dogs I’d committed to saving from the grim reaper.

We were friends from the first day we met, to the day he died.

That’s the indispensable motivator. Lou would have literally jumped off a cliff for me, because he loved me. I was his family. He didn’t need treats, and after the first year or so, I rarely even used them. Like those herding dogs, he just wanted to please, do, learn. Treats did not birth this loyalty, any more than food can define pack loyalty among a family of wolves or dingoes, who stay together not for venison handouts, but out of familial love. Beyond infancy, loyalty in the end is not a food-based behavior, for us, or for dogs.

When a dog wants to do “A” but does “B” because he knows it’s what you want him to do- that’s the definition of a well-trained dog. That dog has got skin in the game. But more than that, he’s a dog who is motivated by loyalty, passion, and mutual admiration. A dog trained to perform for praise, attention and love will develop what I call “passion proofing”- no matter what, that dog, be he a Lab retrieving ducks, a Border Collie herding Merinos, or a police dog chasing down a bad guy, will perform not for a treat, but for the sense of belonging to a larger cause. He cannot be distracted from his task by someone waving a hamburger at him, or by a strange dog walking by. He does what you want, because that’s what he wants.

Think about it: If treat training is so effective, then why would K-9 dogs or search-and-rescue dogs not care a whit about food while they are performing their tasks? What is driving them? It’s their passion, and their love. It’s the same for dogs with behavioral issues such as aggression: that is their passion, and food distraction is to them is, frankly, a ridiculous notion.

Dogs trained on too many treats can become pushy and neurotic about things. I’m sure you’ve seen it: the dog who stares incessantly at his handler’s pocket instead of his eyes. And, though the clicker surely does help accelerate learning, it can sometimes make things too reactionary, with an edgy sense of over-excited expectation. I’d rather have my dogs “sit” or “spin” at a calmer pace and know what they are doing, than to have them mindlessly snap out rapid-fire behaviors in expectation of a tidbit. And, dogs rewarded too often will actually begin to slow down on their response times, because they know the food is always coming. Unpredictable reinforcement, much like human gambling, will actually tend to strengthen the behavior.

And, too many treats make dogs obese.

So try this. First, dedicate yourself to teaching your dog a new behavior, without the use of treats. At all. Use praise, a ball, pats on the head, play- whatever you can come up with that reinforces the bond, and not your dog’s narcissistic craving for food. One plays off of and builds camaraderie, while the other simply encourages a dietary quid pro quo. Can you see the difference? The treatless method will take longer, but the results will be more comprehensive and lasting; your dog will learn the behavior, and grow closer to you in the process, instead of simply slipping into that self-serving “food entitlement” mindset.

Then give him a big fat steak and a tummy rub.

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