Is Treat Training Bribery?

Correct training utilizing treats as rewards does not equal bribery. Here’s why.

In order to teach dogs behaviors some form of motivation is required. Breaking this down into larger groups the options are: the carrot or the stick, or a combination of the two. The so called “stick” is motivation by application of harsh punishments. There’s plenty of reasons to avoid harsh punishment methods. In contrast, the “carrot” is something the dog wants.

Animals and people perform behaviors for a reason – essentially to earn rewards/reinforcement. Treat rewards act as a form of motivation, the behavior becomes worth doing to earn something valuable, just like people go to work to earn money, to buy food to survive. But a treat also acts as positive reinforcement, meaning the behavior is strengthened, and a dog is more likely to perform that behavior again. When we use correct training techniques, these reinforced behaviors are performed, and then the reward is provided. The reward does not come before the behavior. For example, we don’t give our children ice cream before they eat their broccoli, they have to eat their broccoli first in order to earn the reward of the ice cream. If the behavior of eating broccoli increases over time, the ice cream reward positively reinforced the behavior.

The confusion may come from lure-reward training, in which a treat is held by the dog’s nose to entice him to do behaviors like sit, down, walk forward, and then given as the reward. The treat is motivation for the dog to move (do a behavior), and a reward to reinforce the behavior (make the behavior response stronger). However, the correct training process only uses the treat shown up front early on to get the dog to perform the behavior, then the treat is faded (gradually removed) and replaced with hand signals, and verbal cues, where the treat is subsequently provided as positive reinforcement after the behavior is completed.

The final stage is to reinforce some of the correct behaviors the dog does. If we completely stop reinforcing behaviors, they will decrease, because they stop paying off for the dog to do them, and there’s other more rewarding things in the environment to spend time doing.

A failure to fade the treat-lures in the initial step can result in a dog that views the treat as part of the cue to perform the behavior. This might give the appearance that all uses of treats are bribery. Correct training technique clears this up quickly, and then treats can be given after the behavior is performed to reinforce and maintain those behaviors long-term.

So to summarize: you need some form of motivation. Treats or toys work well. The other type of motivation consists of harsh punishments, but those have negative side effects, leading to more behavior problems or harming your dog’s well-being, so should be avoided.

Using lure-reward training you will show the treat-reward up front to get the behavior, then reinforce the behavior, advancing to the point where the lures are faded, and replaced with hand signals and verbal cues as the dog learns when to perform the new behavior.

We have to keep reinforcing some of the behaviors to maintain them, but at this final stage the rewards (treats, toys) are given after the correct behavior is performed.

By Dan Raymer

One thought on “Is Treat Training Bribery?

  1. In a shorter explanation, when reading the definition of a bribe – “persuade someone to act in one’s favor, typically illegally or dishonestly, by a gift of money or other inducement” – it becomes obvious it has nothing to do with positive reinforcement training.

    A food lure simply allows a dog to follow it to complete the behavior we want; it motivates a dog, and reinforces desirable behavior.


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