Does this sound familiar?
Your dog is looking at you from the lawn, about 15 feet away. He won’t budge. You’ve called him 10 times already. Nothing. You go back into the house, pull a hot dog out of the fridge, and go back outside to approach your dog. Lucky you, he comes running as soon as he smells it.
That’s a bribe: It made your dog come to you. The hot dog was presented before your dog came to you.
Different scenario: You call your dog and he comes bounding over to you. You tell him what a good boy he is and you pop a piece of a hot dog into his mouth to reward him for his good behavior.
That’s a reward: It came after your dog came to you. It reinforced the dog’s (good) decision to move in your direction.
What’s the difference between a bribe and a reward?
The difference may seem very slight – the dog got a hot dog either way, right? Wrong. In the first example, the dog came only because of what the owner could produce. The dog could evaluate whether it was worth coming to him. It does nothing to teach the dog that coming to the owner is a good thing. In fact, I’d argue that it actually teaches the dog to take a “wait and see” approach – wait to see what the paycheck is going to be before committing to the behavior. Rely on bribes and you’ll be stuck carrying food with you everywhere. And you’ll probably have to have the “best of the best” if you want your dog to come to you.
In the second example, the dog made the correct decision on his own – coming to the owner – and he was handsomely rewarded for his decision. Which, in turn, will help him make that decision even faster next time.
Bribes and Rewards: Up Close
A bribe is enticement to do a behavior. Bribes come before a behavior. Your dog has your shoe and won’t give it up until you offer him something better. When you rely on bribes to get your dog to behave, you’re sort of a hostage in the relationship: the dog makes you lay all your goodies on the table and then decide if it’s worth doing it.
A bribe is a tough way to train a dog. Using bribes means that you’ll always need them with you. In fact, by using a bribe to train your dog, it’s almost guaranteeing that you’ll need a better bribe next time. After a while it can be tough to out-bribe yourself (meaning, you need a better bribe each time).
Smart trainers don’t use bribes to teach their dogs anything. In an emergency, I may use a bribe to capture a runaway or escaped dog, but you better believe I’ll be back in the training room the very next chance I get to be sure I don’t have to rely on a bribe the next time. I’ll be teaching a very solid recall (come when called) to that dog so I won’t have to rely on a bribe to get the dog to come.
Rewards, or technically reinforcers are what smart trainers rely on to get stellar results from their dog. A reinforcer comes after the dog does something good. Your dog comes to you when you call him, you produce a piece of chicken! Because of the reinforcer, the dog is more likely to come again next time. See the difference? It’s striking, the difference between a bribe and a reinforcer: the bribe doesn’t make the behavior more likely to happen, whereas the reinforcer definitely does!
Here’s a little primer on reinforcers:
The first rule is the dog has to like the reinforcer or else it’s not a reinforcer. They’re anything the dog likes (could be butt scratches, chasing a tennis ball, playing tug with you, access to outside, a tasty treat, etc.). Just because you adore coconut cream pie doesn’t mean I’ll like it. If you “reward” me for helping your move by giving me a piece of coconut cream pie, I will likely not help you move the next time – because I don’t want any of that icky pie. So, the first rule is: make sure your dog likes the reinforcer.
The second rule is you have to always deliver. You can’t take advantage of your dog’s fantastic listening skills by giving him a cursory pat on the head and promising him more later. That doesn’t work with a dog. Your dog will learn quickly that you’re a cheater and a cheapskate. Nobody likes a cheater and your dog will quickly stop working for you. Don’t abuse your dog’s trust – always follow through with a reinforcer if your dog did something great for you.
How to Make the Switch from Bribes to Reinforcers
If you’re like most dog owners, you’ve relied too heavily on bribes in the past and now need to know how to get your dog un-stuck from reliance on bribes. Thankfully, that part’s easy. Your first task is to teach your dog that reinforcers are available (and better than bribes). To do that, you’re going to get food out of your hand. Put it on the table, put it in your pocket, but for the love of Pete, get that food out of your hand!
Then, ask your dog to do something really easy. Maybe it’s a sit, or shake, or roll over. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s easy. Ask your dog just once. Don’t repeat your request. Ask them once. If they do it, whip that reinforcer out and have a party while they eat. If they don’t do it, just walk away. Come back in 30 seconds and give it another go.
Dogs who have been taught using bribes are confused at this point. You can almost read the expression on their face: “Wait. What? How am I supposed to do what you ask if you don’t have food ready for me?” That’s why I want you to ask them to do something really simple. I want them to succeed even though you don’t have a bribe. I want them to get a taste of a real reinforcer!
As your dog gets better at understanding that good things come after they do what you ask, you’ll see that they respond faster and with more enthusiasm. This is a good thing for both of you.
It won’t take long for the switchover from bribes to rewards to happen as long as you are consistently asking the dog for easy behaviors, asking just once, and rewarding them only after the behavior happens.