A lot of dogs get excited when they see me coming.
My arrival and approach often elicits wagging tails, wiggling bodies, and happy faces.
Why? Am I some kind of magical dog psychic?
Nope! It has to do with harnessing the power of positive association!
A BRIEF CRASH COURSE IN HOW DOGS LEARN
Dogs learn through two main ways: association and consequences.
Dogs are not moral beings, contrary to what the Disney channel has told you. They don’t think about right and wrong. They sort the world into what is safe, and what is dangerous (much of this is learned when they are a pup between 3 and 16 weeks of age).
They also learn from consequences. Dogs do what “works” for them. If something “works out” in their favor, they are more likely to repeat that behavior.
For example, if your dog decides to stand up and take a look on the counter, and there is a nice juicy rotisserie chicken right there, and your dog grabs it and eats it, this worked out pretty well in your dog’s mind: counter surfing resulted in a tasty treat. Your dog is more likely to counter surf in the future!
On the other hand, things that don’t “work out” for your dog are less likely to be repeated. For instance, when I visit a new dog to do private coaching in a client’s home, if the dog jumps on me, I turn away from the dog and ignore the dog. When the dog has four paws on the floor, I will greet and pet the dog. Because jumping didn’t “work” for the dog and get the attention they wanted, jumping decreases, and standing quietly increases, because that gets them the attention they wanted. Often, I can start seeing a behavior change in a few minutes of working on polite greetings by utilizing dogs’ understanding of consequences.
Does your dog come running when they hear you open the dog food container? Or do they try to turn and run when you walk into your vet’s office? These are both examples of the power of association. Dogs (and all learners) can form powerful negative or positive associations with events.
This is both good news and bad news for dog trainers, depending on how you train your dog. If you train your dog with methods that are unpleasant, painful, or scary for the dog, you run the risk of the dog associating certain people, places, and things with fear and pain.
(Side note: you will see some trainers argue that tools like choke collars, prong collars, and electric shock collars are not aversive or painful. If they weren’t unpleasant or painful, they wouldn’t work. The learner-the DOG-determines what is aversive. That will be a blog post for another day!)
In this vein, I have seen dogs that are afraid of going inside of a house because they received an electric shock for entering the “wrong room” of the house. The dog associated the shock with entering a room, and after this was afraid to enter any new room inside a building. I have worked with a dog who received a “correction” (a jerk to their prong collar) every time they saw another dog and start barking; this dogs became MORE reactive towards other dogs because their presence was a predictor of leash jerks and pain. Anytime you train with pain, you run the risk of forming these negative associations.
On the bright side, trainers who use motivators like food or toys don’t run these risks! This brings me back to the opening of my post: why do dogs come running and look so happy when they see me? There is actually nothing magical about me in particular! They have formed a positive association with me, linking me with treats and clear communication.
If you aren’t quite sure you believe me, take a look at this video. Both of these dogs are the same breed (border collies). The dog on the left is being trained to do leash work using electric shock. The dog on the right is with a trainer using positive reinforcement and treats.
Take a good look at the body language of the dogs. The dog on the left has a low tail, ears back, and looks anxious and avoidant. That dog clearly has formed some negative associations (perhaps with training, perhaps with the owner or trainer, perhaps with walks). Is the dog walking nicely on leash? Sure! But at what cost?
The dog on the right is also walking on a loose leash, and looks bright, attentive, and eager, with a higher tail, perky ears, and bouncy body. This dog has likely formed a positive association with training, and probably the trainer and owner too!
At the end of the day, what kind of relationship do you want to have with your dog? I’ll take the happy dog on the right. Personally, I adopted my dog as a companion animal, as a sidekick, as a friend. I want my sidekick to be happy. And there’s no reason why I can’t have a dog that is both happy and well-mannered using positive training techniques.
Believe it or not, there are trainers and people out there who criticize the use of rewards and treats during training. “Cookie pushers” is a term that is often used for trainers who use treats as a primary tool for training a dog. Cookie critics feel that training achieved through the use of treats is somehow inferior or less desirable to other forms of training.
What the “cookie pusher” criticism doesn’t recognize is that trainers of all types are using tools to train dogs. For the cookie critics, their tools include choke collars, prong collars, shock collars, loud or scary noises, jabbing the dog, etc. In other words, in lieu of treats, they use tools that induce fear or discomfort to coerce a dog into obedience. And please don’t let these trainers convince you that the dog is working for praise: if the dog would work for praise alone, they would not need all of these tools and methods to punish them.
SHOW ME THE MONEY
Another common criticism is that positive trainers who use treats are bribing the dog. When positive reinforcement training is completed properly, it is not the same as bribing. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a bribe as “to influence the judgment or conduct of someone with offers of money or favor.” If you need to wave a treat in front of a dog’s face to get them to sit or come, I would agree with calling this bribery.
On the other hand, if I can ask my dog to come and sit and no treats are visible, but she does it anyway, knowing that she may be rewarded for her efforts because we have built a working relationship through a history of positive reinforcement, this is not bribery.
If I do give my dog a reward on occasion for a job well done, this is also not bribery. Remember, you get a paycheck from your employer. It’s not a bribe; it’s compensation for work completed that ensures you are going to continue to work in the future.
When you see a dog that will only perform cued behaviors when they can visibly see a treat or a treat pouch, I call this kind of behavior “Show me the money!” (Thank you, Jerry Maguire). The dog will only perform if they can see a tangible reward. This kind of behavior reflects an error in training, not a fundamental flaw with rewards based training. When lures are faded properly and reinforcement schedules are used correctly, a dog that was trained with treats will still work for their owner without treats visible.
Dog owners should make sure they work with an experienced positive reinforcement trainer who can help them avoid this pitfall, and be candid about sharing any concerns they have about the use of treats during training. A qualified trainer can address their concerns and help them avoid “Show me the money” behavior.
At the end of the day, as a positive reinforcement trainer, my tools are treats, praise, toys, and access to things the dog finds rewarding (like time to sniff the bushes, getting to jump out of the car to go on a hike, etc.) Positive training doesn’t mean that I am permissive. On the contrary: my communication with dogs is clear, my training methods are structured, and I expect a lot out of my own dog and the dogs that I train. The difference is the tools and methods I use to get the dogs there.
Yup! I’m a cookie pusher all the way.