Are we bribing our dogs with food?

I am working with a client and her dog with recall (come when called). My client calls her dog and seconds later produces a treat for the dog. The dog meanwhile remains motionless down the hallway of the home.

I tell my client that it’s best not to bribe the dog. She looks at me puzzled. ‘What do you mean by bribing her?’ She asks me. I explain to her that there is a big difference with the use of food as a reinforcer and the use of food as a bribe.

A reinforcer is a consequence and something desirable by the dog. It appears after the dog has performed the behavior we are after – not before. That is a bribe! This is an important distinction because consequences are what drives behavior.

If there is an area of contention in positive training, commonly known as reward-based training, is the use of food. People agonize over to use food for training the world over. I am sure every single trainer has heard the same from their clients: Why use food? For how long must I use food? Etc.

There are scientific reasons why we work with food. First off, food is what we called a Primary reinforcer. That simply means that dogs (or any animal for that matter) not only needs food to survive but wants food, likes food, and will work for food.

If you think of it, why would we not use one of the most powerful reinforcers on the planet to teach and maintain behavior? Not doing so is what is crazy!

The second conflict people have about the use of food for training is the how long must they use the food part. The answer is that it depends. It depends on several things: For example, is the behavior we are interested in teaching new “material” for the dog? Is he just learning this?
Is the context, person working with the dog, the setting where the dog is supposed to perform the behavior also a novelty? Any change in the context in which the dog is expected to perform is perceived, as a “novelty” scenario for the dog and in such cases food should remain part of the picture until the dog has learned the behavior in this specific context.

Another important factor to consider is that if we want any behavior (from any species) to remain strong that behavior must be reinforced. Period! If it is not reinforced in some way the behavior will become less frequent until it becomes extinct.

Third conflict some people bring to the table when using food as a reinforcer is based on the expectation that the dog should do what he is told either out of love for us, respect or because he simply should. We humans are so comical at times; this being one of those times. LOL.

Here is my best analogy to explain how our way of thinking is not in line with the theory of learning. Imagine that your boss expects you to show up to work because you should either:

A. Like your boss, or worse – do it out of love for your boss. In essence, you should show up to work without the expectation of any other reinforcer just for the love for your boss… right! Let’s see how long this lasts…

B. Your job should be intrinsically reinforcing enough to you so that you do not need to get paid for it with money that is, which is highly reinforcing (and a need in most circumstances) for people.

C. Because you SHOULD… there is clearly a moral tone to the “should” and even though people are moral beings, dogs are not! So should really never enters in the decision making process of any dog.

What I hope is for people to truly understand the scientific principles behind the use of food as a powerful way to teach and maintain behavior. When they don’t, and as a result they fall short on using it wisely, everyone loses. And life is way too short to make things more difficult for everyone. Stay tune for more in depth “discussion” on food as well as other salient reinforcers.