Help! My Dog Only Listens to Me When I Have Treats

Updated on September 5, 2018
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Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinary hospital assistant, and the author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

The Use of Treats in Dog Training

If your dog only listens to you when you have treats, yes, you have a problem, but the problem has nothing to do with using the treats per se; rather, the problem is based on the way the treats are being used to get the dog to perform a behavior.

It's unfortunate that the inappropriate use of treats in dog training leads to the big misconception that dogs will listen only when a cookie is waved in front of their face. Yes, inappropriate training may lead to that, but correct dog training does not. The big secret relies in knowing how to use treats correctly.

Food Is a Powerful Reinforcer

Let face it: Food has always been something your dog has craved and will continue to crave. Food has a very powerful meaning. The dog's ability to find and eat food has led to their survival throughout the years. No dog needs to learn to love food. It's all 100 percent natural.

So with food playing such an important role in a dog's life and with feed being so readily available, why on earth would anyone not want to use food to reinforce desired behaviors?

Forget About Dogs Working Exclusively to Please

One probable answer as to why food should not be used in training dogs may be: "because dogs should perform behavior just to please us." This notion though has a big flaw: dogs aren't naturally programmed this way.

Just as nobody wants to work all their lives for free, dogs don't either. Working for free is something only people may do because the activity is innately rewarding to them per se, or they were threatened and forced to do it (e.g. think slavery).

In certain cases, often in the old times, dogs may have been trained without food but in that case, dogs were either performing behaviors that were instinctive and therefore for a good part internally rewarding (like killing rats in factories, herding animals), or dogs were obeying commands under the threat of harsh corrections (eg. ear pinching to get a dog to pick up an object to train force-fetching). Fortunately, with the advent of modern dog training, these harsh methods are used less and less.

Food to Encourage Calm Behaviors

Another misconception about using food is that food creates too much excitement. There's nothing wrong with a dog who is excited about food. It demonstrates joie de vivre in the dog and these dogs are often super-motivated.

And though it's true, some dogs go bonkers when they detect food and may even try to snatch it. Once again, it's important to adhere to correct training around food to minimize these overly exuberant displays. For instance, in a dog that is overly excited about some high-value treats, then lower value food can always be used (think kibble which dogs see every single day). Kibble works wonders for many dogs and can be used with success when training at home without the added calories of treats. Why give out food for free when instead it can be put to good use for training and mental stimulation?

On top of that, food should never be delivered when a dog is exhibited rowdy behavior such as jumping and pawing, otherwise, these behaviors gain a history of reinforcement and will strengthen and repeat. Savvy dog trainers know that food can be used strategically to reinforce calm behaviors in dogs lacking impulse control.

You're Not Stuck With Food Forever

Finally, some skeptics may claim that by giving food to dogs when training, humans turn into perpetual snack dispensers. Again, this is the wrong use of food in dog training. When dogs are trained properly, food is initially given on a continuous schedule of reinforcement (for every correct behavior), but then it's important to move to a variable schedule where food is given every now and then (more on this a few paragraphs down).

At that point, life rewards (things dogs love to do naturally) and conditioned reinforcers (things that require dogs to learn to enjoy through associative learning) can also be used to maintain desired behaviors.

As a side note: There's nothing wrong if your dog associates you with food! Your dog will bond with you, be more eager to stick by your side, and perceive you as a source of many positive happenings and reassurance.

As much as people think dogs want to please their owners, science shows in most cases, they want to do whatever it will take to get their needs satisified.

— Mary Jean Alsina, Dogs are People Too
A Dog's Dream Come True!
A Dog's Dream Come True!

How to Phase Out Treats When Training Dogs

Many dog behaviors are easily taught using a training method known as "luring." In luring, a treat is shown in plain view and is used to "lure" the dog to follow it. It is used to get a dog to sit, lie down, or heel, and then, upon completion of the behavior, the treat is given to provide reinforcement for the behavior.

For example, when training a dog to sit through luring, you may use a food lure protruding from your fingers to direct your dog into a sit. You would simply use the food to move your dog's head upwards so that his bottom touches the floor.

At some point though, rather sooner than later, you need to interrupt dependence on following the food lure (the process is often called fading the lure) and this can be easily done by simply, using an empty hand for the dog to follow (using the same motion as when holding the treat), but this time, delivering the treat from the other hand.

Sometimes, dogs may have problems when fading food lures. Some dogs may heavily rely on the visual aspect of the treats, that, if they do not see them, they do not perform the behavior. These dogs are often perceived as stubborn as it looks like they are not performing the behavior because there's no food, so it looks like they are going on strike, but it's likely just a matter of the dog not following the empty hand because there's no longer anything to follow.

It's sort of like us when we are used to driving on the highway following signs to our favorite restaurant, but one day the signs are missing and we are a bit lost.

So here are a few steps to help to fade the food lure. All it takes often is breaking the process into smaller steps. We can try making the food lure gradually smaller and smaller, protruding less and less from out of our fingers, until it's barely there and then completely gone.

If the dog still has difficulty, we can pass some treats on our hands rubbing them so our hands still carry the heavy scent of the food (this works well with hounds) and proceed as if we still have food in our hands.

Another option is to do several reps quickly in a row with the food showing and then in the midst of all these do one rep without the treat. visible Then, the percentage of treat-less reps should be increased gradually.

Finally, it's a good idea to aim on doing several reps every now and then with no treats on you or inside your treat bag. Ask your dog a behavior and say "yes!" enthusiastically upon your dog performing it, and then both of you can rush to go get a cookie from a cookie jar or you can grab your dog's already filled up food bowl you have prepared earlier and placed in a cabinet ready to serve.

The "yes" in this case works as a "bridge" by connecting the performed behavior with a reinforcer albeit the reinforcement occurs a few seconds later and at a distance.

You can substitute food with life rewards such as snapping the leash on and going on a walk to reward a sit.

Reward your dog by rushing together to go grab a cookie over the counter.
Reward your dog by rushing together to go grab a cookie over the counter.

The Power of a Variable Schedule

There is psychology behind the reason why a variable schedule works great in maintaining dog behavior. A variable schedule keeps your dog eager to perform desired behaviors because it keeps your dog on his toes not knowing what comes next. Will he get a treat this time or the next? It's sure worth trying! A variable schedule builds persistence, and it applies as well to unwanted behaviors, hence why when dogs are allowed to sleep on the couch sometimes yes and sometimes no, the dog keeps persevering in trying.

The psychology behind this is at play in many of the most addictive activities observed in humans. Slot machines are an example. The fact you win sometimes yes and sometimes no makes this activity extra addicting. Facebook is another, you get several forms of reinforcement (likes, shares, laughs) in an unpredictable matter and you go through several emotions and that keeps you coming back.

Once your dog's behavior has a high history of continuous reinforcement and your dog performs the behavior fluently at least 80 percent of the time even around distractions (this may take 1-2 months) then it's time to move to a variable schedule. It's important to not move from continuous to variable too quickly as that's often when behaviors start breaking down.

Now, a variable schedule means that your dog's behavior still gets reinforcement every time he performs the behavior correctly, only thing is that it won't always be food. You can use other primary reinforcers (things your dog likes naturally and didn't have to learn to like) such as toys, games, and perhaps, going on walks with you and secondary reinforcers (things your dog has learned to like because of a history of pairing with primary reinforcers) such as praise words.

For example, if you tell your dog “good boy” and follow up with a treat several times, eventually, the words can be used to reinforce behaviors, even that day you forgot your treats at home. However, something important to consider is that you need to maintain this association for part of the time if you want it to stay strong enough to keep reinforcing the behavior.

It's, therefore, important for dog owners to constantly evaluate how things are going and gauge the dog's motivation. Here's a simple troubleshooting tip: If the dog's behavior starts breaking down and the dog no longer responds well to our requests to perform a behavior, there are chances that the distractions are either too strong or the reinforcers delivered are too weak or perhaps both.

Secondary reinforcers are things that are learned by an animal to be associated with Primary Reinforcers, and thus eventually elicit a similar response through classical conditioning. For example, if you repeat “Good Dog” and follow up it with a treat enough times, eventually your dog will work to hear you say it

— Patricia McConnell
Sitting is reinforced by me putting the leash on and immediately going on a walk.
Sitting is reinforced by me putting the leash on and immediately going on a walk.

References

  • Patricia McConnell, Using Secondary Reinforcers – Wisdom from Ken Ramirez, The ther End of the Leash
  • Dogs Are People Too: The Practical Guide to Understanding and Training Your Dog By Mary Jean Alsina,CPDT-KA,PCT-A, M.A

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Adrienne Janet Farricelli

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