FOOD - Bribe or Reward?

Updated: Aug 21, 2020


A lot of people don’t like to use food as a reward in training because they feel that they are bribing their dog.

There is a difference between reward-based training and bribery.

To be able to get your dog to engage in training with you there must be some incentive for the dog to do that. He needs to be interested and motivated to ‘sign-up’ for the training. He needs to think that there’s something in it for him.

We’re the same. Think about what your response would be if a company that was unknown to you approached you and offered you a job. ‘Great’ you might think. Then they add ‘but we’re not going to pay you for the work that you do’. What would be your response then?

In this situation you know nothing about the company except that they want you to work for them for nothing. So, really there’s no incentive for you to take up their offer.

You might say well, some people do voluntary work, they work for nothing. No, they don’t. People who volunteer get something out of it. Whether that’s the satisfaction of being able to give time, energy or to use their skills to help in some way, or whether it’s an opportunity to get involved in something that they’re passionate about, there is some kind of ‘reward’. Would you sign up to do voluntary work in an area that you have no interest in or that you hate?

So, when we engage in ‘work’, we do something in exchange for ‘payment’, whether that payment is the satisfaction of helping or a monetary payment. So, you do something THEN you get paid. This is not bribery!

Bribery is when I say to someone ‘I want you to do something for me, here’s £5, now will you do it?’

If I’m lucky, the person may carry out the task. However, they might not, and they’ve got the £5 into the bargain. If it’s the second case, I’m in a sticky situation. I’ve paid £5 and the task still isn’t done. At this point I have 2 choices. I can give up and the task doesn’t get done, or I can ‘up’ the bribe. So, I give the person £10 and ask them to do the task. If they’re smart, they’ll realise they’re onto a good thing and they’ll take the £10 and still refuse to do the task. They’re bargaining on you offering more. This will continue until you no longer are willing to pay. This point signals the end of the engagement between you. The relationship is over.

These principles are the same with our dogs. When a puppy, or an older dog who has had little training, starts out they don’t know what this ‘training’ lark is about. So, at the beginning, we might notice the pup doing something that we like – say we took them outside and they did the toilet – we would mark this event/behaviour in some way (a word like ‘yes’ or a clicker) to let the pup know that something significant happened, (even though at this stage they don’t have a clue what this was) and then we follow through with a treat as payment. So, the ‘work’ (having a pee in this case) has been done, then they get payment (treat). The dog then must use its brain to work out what he did that got him the payment of the treat. Training in this way develops learning in the dog that enables him to think for himself and to problem solve in a constructive way. It also provides the potential to develop the training – the dog gradually gets to know ‘what this training lark is about’ - and therefore the relationship between you develops naturally as a product of the training.

Think about another scenario. You ask your dog to sit, he does nothing, and you give him the treat in the hope that he’ll sit. This is bribery. As in the above bribery scenario, the dog has got his treat for nothing. You think ‘that didn’t work so I’d better make it more worth his while’, and you offer a higher value treat. Maybe you started with a piece of kibble (quite low value and probably not very interesting) so next time you offer a bit of cheese. Still no ‘sit’, but boy, is your dog learning! Unfortunately, he’s not learning what you want him to learn. You then up the ante and offer a piece of juicy steak. He accepts it with relish, but still no ‘sit’. He’s learning that if he does nothing, you’ll respond by producing evermore tasty treats. At this point you probably give up, thinking your dog is incapable of learning anything and that this ‘training lark’ doesn’t work. Your relationship deteriorates to the point where you are both ‘doing your own thing’ with very little interaction between you. Sound familiar?

Hence, ‘reward-based’ training works and bribery doesn’t, and they are two very different things!



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