What’s the difference between a bribe and a reward?
A bribe comes before the behavior. “Hey, kid. I’ll give you $5 to eat your vegetables.”
A reward (technically a reinforcer) comes after the behavior. “Because you ate all your vegetables, here’s $5.”
My point isn’t about paying a kid to eat his vegetables, so let’d not get sidetracked there. My point is that if you teach your dog by waving food in front of his face to get him to do something for you, you can’t say the dog is stubborn because he won’t do what you ask when you don’t have food. That right there is my biggest problem with bribes. I have lots of other problems with bribes, but we’ll save those for a rainy day.
I teach with food. But I do not use bribes.
I teach all my dogs and all my students (and their dogs) that food is available only after the click. We don’t have food in our hands, we don’t show it to them. We are food-less until the dog does something clickable. In this way, we’re teaching dogs to work for the click which leads to the food. The dog isn’t focused on the food, but rather on getting to the click which gives the dog access to the food.
The longer you use food to get the dog to do the behavior, the more the food itself becomes part of the whole picture for the dog. Change any of the pieces of the picture (remove the food, change positions, whatever), and the dog really doesn’t understand what you’re asking. From the dog’s perspective, you’re asking wrong!
If you want to use food to jumpstart your dog’s learning, here’s my plan. Follow this plan and you will teach your dog to work for the click, not for the food.
- You can use food in your hand three times to jumpstart the behavior — clicking and treating for each of the three correct responses.
- On repetition #4 (and subsequent reps), pretend you have food in what is really your empty hand. Click and then get the treat when the dog gets it right.
- If the dog doesn’t do the behavior, do not get food! Dogs are smart: if you teach the dog that food will come out if they just hesitate a bit, he’ll start to hesitate just so you’ll pull the food out of your pocket and put it in his face. If you pull the food out, you’re guaranteeing the dog will only do the behavior if you have food. You’re teaching him that you need food in your hand before he does the behavior.
In real life, ask your dog to do something for you before you’re going to do something he likes or wants. For example, if your dog loves walks, ask for a sit (or down, or touch, or whatever) before you clip on the leash. As soon as he does what you asked, clip the leash on and take your dog outside. Doing this throughout the day will help your dog understand that food isn’t necessary in order for him to do behaviors — but that cooperation always leads to good things.