Why are treats so “bad”?

I was recently out in public with my 6 month old puppy, at a Cafe putting our work on settling to practice in the real world. I was rewarding his lying down beside me with treats. He was doing a great job! A couple of times he would stand up to have a closer look at something interesting (kids or other dogs walking close), but I simply asked him to lie down again and rewarded him for making the correct choice.

lay down training

Not too long into our breakfast, another family came and sat down with their young pup. He was much bigger than Wilbur, but i would guess that he was about the same age. Wilbur and this puppy were quite interested in one another, but i asked Wilbur to stay put and rewarded him for doing so, only to see the other owner look disapproving. He proceeded to tell his pup to “get down” and “stay”, tugging on its leash when it didn’t comply. This was repeated a number of times, before the effort was given up and the pup stood or sat where it was at the end of the lead.

My question following this scenario is “Why are treats so bad?”

I have made a conscious decision to train using the principles of learning theory and behaviour modification. How can I set a dog (or any animal) up to succeed in the situation I am asking them to work in? How can I motivate them in any given situation? How can I reward good choices while limiting the reinforcement for making undesirable choices?

In the Cafe scenario I set Wilbur up to succeed by training him first at home, then at friends houses, then at work, then in training classes with other dogs around. He’s been rewarded for settling in the presence of familiar dogs, unfamiliar dogs, adults, kids, bikes, other animals, etc. At home he can settle happily when asked, without needing to be “paid” each time. Out and about I still reward his choices with treats – his motivation to keep working despite the new and exciting location. And when the other pup was seated nearby, i simply settled Wilbur on my other side – that way i could keep rewarding his great behaviour, while minimising the arousal and reinforcement he would get from constantly staring over at the other dog. It worked, but i was using treats – which is cheating right?

At the next table, the pup’s owner was training their pup to do exactly the same behaviour. We had the same goal – have our dog lie down quietly while we ate breakfast. Rather than treats, this pup was being asked to perform a behaviour “or else”. The “or else” was a tug on the leash to move him into position. It wasn’t a harsh tug, but this meant it wasn’t a very strong motivator for the pup to stay down – he kept standing up. It looked frustrating for both the owner and the pup, and indeed the effort was given up. The training goal was not achieved, and the pup hasn’t learned anything about what to do next time he visits a cafe, except that if he keeps standing up he can do what he wants.

So why are treats “bad”? Is it “cheating” to use treats to achieve a training goal? When used to reward a good behaviour (not to bribe or lure), a treat is no different to your pay at work, or a bonus. We all need to know we’re doing our job well. Wilbur’s job was to lay down and stay there, even with lots of things happening around him, and he did a great job – he got paid! And next time we have breakfast, he’s learned something about how to behave – settling earns good things!

Don’t be scared to use treats in public, and don’t feel like you’re cheating. Your dog will appreciate the information, and you will be rewarded with a dog that is learning the way to behave in our world – whether it is settling at a cafe, walking beside you, or sitting at a curb, rewarding a job well-done is a great way to see that same behaviour more in future.

Train smart, not tough!


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