Using treats for training is very popular. Clickers training is also very popular. They are a non-physical, reward-based system and can produce results. They have been said to be the latest in scientific methods, but they are a human system, not a canine system and as such can create misunderstandings.
Food can be a very powerful motivator for pack dogs. You can get them to do all kinds of things for a treat, we do not use treats to reward behavior however. Why not?
First, we want our dogs thinking with their brains, not with their stomachs. We often see dogs that have been treat trained. They are watching their owners’ hands, not looking in their eyes. We’ve been told on numerous occasions that “Rover will do anything for a T-R-E-A-T” When we ask how he behaves without the treat we usually get a laugh and are told, “He ignores us.”
Second, if we allow dogs to take food from our hand it’s harder to make them understand when it’s not okay to take food from us or from someone else. Problems can occur. What happens when that young child walks by with an ice cream cone or some other enticing morsel? Rover might think he should be allowed to grab it. Where is Rover when it’s dinner time? Is he sitting near the table watching you?
Third, from the standpoint of canine dominance, pack leaders don’t give food directly to the more submissive members. They eat what they want first and then leave the rest for the pack to eat. The pack leaders will, however, take food from more submissive members. So what message does Rover get when he’s allowed to take food from our hands? He thinks he must be the pack leader because he’s taking food AWAY from a submissive member. The pack leaders are the ones who make the rules for the pack. If Rover thinks he’s in charge, he’s less likely to listen when we ask him to do something.
Fourth, when we use treats we are actually responding to Rover, not the other way around. He learns, sometimes very quickly, to manipulate the situation to get what he wants and we have to respond with the treat or he doesn’t behave. Sometimes the result is that Rover will misbehave on purpose so that he gets a treat in order to stop the bad behavior. This again elevates his position in the pack.
Fifth, if Rover has been trained with treats, once he learns the behaviors we want, we have to wean him from the treats. Some people have difficulty with this aspect of treat and clicker training. It can prolong the training process as we are actually training Rover twice. We do however use treats sometimes during training. Treats can represent things that Rover wants to chase, bark at, or that upset him. In each of these cases, we want Rover paying attention to us, not what he might want to go after or be interested in. We can use the treats as those things and then correct Rover for going after them. This can be a very good exercise to help get Rover to pay attention to you.
We also do use treats occasionally to help make things a more pleasant experience. If Rover finds a treat in his crate when he goes in there, he’s going to associate good things with the crate and he’s more likely to want to go into it. Sometimes, we also use treats as a way to help Rover overcome some anxiety he might have by making a particular situation into a more pleasant experience.
Care must be used in each of these situations so as not to create additional misunderstandings and we would suggest that you work with a trained therapist on those exercises. We want Rover to respect us and listen to our voice. In order for him to do that, it’s important that he views us as being the ones in charge, the pack leaders.
The vast majority of dogs are not dominant by nature. They don’t want to be the pack leader, being the leader can be stressful to a dog whose temperament is more toward the submissive end of the scale. But if we don’t display leadership in ways Rover understands he has no choice but to assert himself because he knows that a pack must have a leader in order to survive, and survival is obviously extremely important to Rover.
We want to communicate with Rover as simply and as clearly as possible. Using treats for training, while being a powerful tool, can sometimes create misunderstandings. We believe we should use treats as their name suggests, as treats just because we love our dogs; not as a reward for behavior.
By Antonia & Luis Escobar, Bark Busters.