Rewarding vs. Bribing

“Eat your vegetables and you can have dessert.” Remember hearing this as a kid? I may have hated green beans as a child but if I knew there was ice cream afterwards I could suddenly stomach those slimy green things. The reward (ice cream) was there only if I performed a task (eating green beans) that my mother requested. When asked to eat liver and onions the result was different.

And this same concept is also applicable in dog training. Dogs make choices regarding what they are willing to do for the rewards we offer. A dog’s decision-making process is quite simple. It is either pleasant or unpleasant, comfortable or uncomfortable, safe or unsafe, or in a nut shell, rewarding vs. non-rewarding.  Owners often comment that their dog will only perform a specific task if “treats” are present. In some situations, even showing the dog treats won’t produce the desired behavior from the dog. This can be very frustrating for the owner.

So why do dogs “choose” when to perform a desired task? Does the concept of Positive Reinforcement always mean using food? One answer to both questions lies in how rewards are presented to the dog. Understanding the difference between a reward and a bribe can help owners present valuable resources, such as food rewards, in a way that sets the dog up to make the desired choice (behavior owner wants) happen consistently.

A reward is “a thing given in recognition of one’s service, effort, or achievement.”  In other words, a reward is something you give AFTER a behavior is achieved. In order for something to be a reward the recipient has to find value in what is being presented. It is the recipient that decides what is pleasurable or gratifying, not the person giving the item.

A bribe is “something that serves to induce or influence.” When bribing, the reward is typically known prior to performing the behavior or task. Once again, whatever is being used as the item of influence must be valuable to the person who is being asked to perform the task, and it must be valuable enough to produce the desired outcome.

Owner’s often unintentionally set their dog up to receive bribes, not rewards. Dogs are pretty observant and pick up on patterns pretty quickly. When owners always go to the cookie jar, reach into their treat pouches or pockets, or open a bag of treats prior to asking for a behavior, they are essentially bribing the dog. The dog knows ahead of time that a treat is present, and they can decide whether it is reinforcing enough to perform the owner’s requested behavior.

As a child, ice cream was enough of a bribe for me to eat green beans. I knew that my favorite dessert was waiting if I complied with my mother’s request to finish my vegetables. But, it was not valuable enough for me to eat liver and onions. Frankly, I disliked everything about liver and onions, so I don’t know if there was anything of enough value to bribe me to eat them. No matter how hard I tried I could not stomach that meal. I typically went hungry whenever liver and onions was our dinner.

So how do you avoid bribing a dog? Here are some tips to help you use rewards appropriately:

  1. Use food as a lure to teach the desired behavior only and fade the food lure as soon as you believe the dog understands the behavior

  2. Avoid getting the food before you begin every training session or asking for a behavior

  3. Be aware of unintentional cues such as putting your hands in your pockets or treat pouch before you cue your dog

  4. Incorporate other rewards that your dog identifies as reinforcing into his day

Food lures can be the quickest way to help a dog learn knew behaviors. Most of us have taught a dog to sit by hold a treat above his head and using the verbal cue “SIT.” Once the dog has the behavior reliably established, simply get rid of the food in your hand, cue with the same verbal and hand signal (hand over the head) and BE PATIENT! Wait until the dog decides to perform the behavior and then produce a REWARD. Yes, the dog may not sit immediately. But if the behavior has been rewarded reliably in the past every dog will eventually sit. AVOID the temptation to go back and get the food reward and recue the behavior! If you do, you have just reinforced your dog for waiting for a bribe!

Make certain you don’t always go to the same place for food rewards prior to working with your dog. Having small amounts of food rewards “stashed” in various places with easy access will help avoid unintentional bribes. The same goes for always reaching into your pockets or a bag during training sessions. Your dog will choose not to perform a task because your behavior has changed, and the food reward isn’t present. These are two of the most common ways owners set their dog up to “fail.”

Finally, pay attention to your dog when you are not training. What does he find pleasurable? Does he like to check “peemail” on walks? Chase squirrels in the backyard? Play tug or fetch? All of these are things that your dog may enjoy. They can then be used as rewards and you don’t have to worry about carrying them around in your pockets. Asking your dog to sit before you reach his favorite place to “hit reply” to peemail on walks

is a great way to use it as a reward. If he cannot sit you’ve got some work to do!

Our dog’s ability to perform the tasks we ask is only as good as our ability to use rewards appropriately. When they are used to bribery, and the bribe is suddenly absent, so will their willingness to work. That doesn’t make them “stubborn” or “willful.” It makes them smart and observant!

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