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Food: Reinforcing, Rewarding or Bribing

Words, and their meanings, matter to me. In fact, it’s been suggested that I go a little overboard, get a bit technical, when it comes to word choices. So, when I say that how we use words like “reinforcer” and “reward” and “bribe” in dog training makes a difference, you wouldn’t be surprised, right?

When I’m training with my dog, I’m reinforcing behavior I want and ignoring, or managing, behavior I don’t want. But I’m not rewarding her. Reward is often used interchangeably with the word reinforcer. Reinforcing a behavior is also different than offering a bribe to get your dog to do something. Rewards and bribes are not the same as a reinforcer and don’t produce the same results. So, when I'm giving my dog food while we're training, what am I doing - rewarding, reinforcing, or bribing? It depends.

Motivation: Learning depends on it

My first goal is learning what motivates my dog to engage in the learning process. Food is a good choice because it’s something that dogs need and most dogs will work for food. Maybe not boring kibble, but they will work for some kind of food. If my dog is motivated by food, then learning is easier and faster. Food is a powerful reinforcer for dogs.

Reinforcer- A stimulus that in operant conditioning maintains or strengthens a desired response.

Loose leash, treat pouch on hip, hand by side - excellent training!!

What is a reinforcer? A reinforcer is anything my dog will work for. Food is the most common reinforcer in dog training, especially when a dog is learning something new or difficult. Using reinforcers speed up the training. That's why we use reinforcers! When a dog, or human for that matter, is reinforced for a behavior, then that behavior will be repeated. Puppies in my house learn to go to their crate for meals. During the training phase puppy follows me (and the food) to the crate. When puppy goes into the crate and lies down, puppy gets her meal. When puppy has the “aha” moment (I get food when I’m in my crate and lying down) then I name the behavior (add the cue), which is “go home”. When I’ve prepared puppy’s meal, I cue “go home” and puppy goes to her crate. Over time puppy starts going to her crate before I tell her to go home.

Food isn’t the only reinforcer. Other things that we may use as reinforcers are toys, play, or verbal praise.

Why not just use verbal praise? Using verbal praise works when there is a strong person-pet bond. The reality is that dogs, unlike people, are non-verbal. Our tone of voice is much more meaningful than the words we use. Sometimes that's a hard to concept to remember because using words (i.e., talking) is our natural and most comfortable form of communication. When my dog was a puppy I used a lot of food reinforcers, but as we developed our relationship and her skills improved, I shifted to more verbal praise and less food. When she was a puppy and I asked her to return she almost always got a food reinforcer. As an adult, usually she gets a “good girl” and ear rubs and occasionally gets a food reinforcer. NOTE: Head patting is rarely reinforcing and often is punishing to dogs. If your dog dislikes head patting (and all mine dislike it), then she may be less likely to respond to a cue if she knows getting her head patted is the result of her complying with your request. Discover what kind of touch your dog finds reinforcing. Is it ear rubs, chin scratches, butt scratches?

Reward - something given or received in return or recompense for service, merit, hardship, etc.

Isn’t a reward the same thing as a reinforcer? Not really. A reward is recognition of something that’s done over a longer period, like getting a bonus from your boss after completing a project. Dog training is different. Our dogs live in the present, which means the concept of a bonus doesn’t mean the same thing to them that it does to people. After a vet visit, I may go through drive-thru and get my dog a pup cup. Am I rewarding her for a good vet visit? In my mind, yes. In her mind, no, she’s getting something delicious, but it has nothing to do with the vet visit. Or my dog and I may go to class, spend hours practicing, and finally go to an agility competition. My dog may win. She may get a ribbon as a reward. That reward is for hard work that we’ve done together, but it’s unlikely to have any effect on her performance. Why? Rewards don’t impact dog behavior in the way a reward affects human behavior. But it will reinforce my behavior, which may mean that I work more with my dog and prepare for future competitions, which means spending more time together. We both win!

Bribe- money or something else of value offered or given to someone to get them to do something you want then to do, especially if they are not willing

Bribery: I’ll only do it if I get something in return

“My dog only listens when I have food.” Yes! I assure you that if I have something delicious in my hand, I absolutely have my dog’s attention. If it’s especially delicious, she’ll also be salivating and intently staring at me (this is not begging - it is optimism).

Confession of this trainer: In that scenario, I usually share a bit of my food (if safe). In fact, if you could peak inside my

Begging? I'd call it optimism. Her history of reinforcement tells her she will get the last bite!

house at dinner, you will absolutely see giant dogs stationed around the table drooling and waiting. They all know that waiting pays off. Does it promote begging? No. When “begging”, dogs are really looking for opportunities. Dogs also enjoy the smell of food. And dogs enjoy being near their family. Put it all together - four legged opportunists (my dogs) + smell of delicious food (my dinner) + their human companions = a dog sitting at the table staring at me through dinner. Perfectly normal and predictable canine behavior. (We’ll look at table manners in another blog.)

But I digress. We were getting to bribes. This is where timing makes the difference in training. If my dog sees the food before the behavior is performed, then she’s working for a bribe. She sees the food, she wants the food, so she’ll comply to get the food. If the food isn’t in sight she may not comply with my request. Sound familiar?

Dog sees food in hand and on or bribing?

However, if my dog complies with a request and then she gets a treat, then it’s a reinforcer. Confused? Let’s say that I ask my dog to “down”. Now, if I have a treat in my hand, she may see the treat and then do what I’ve asked. Is she complying because she wants the treat she knows I have, or because she is willing to do what I ask? Is she guessing that a “down” will get the food? Does she do several different things before “down”? If my dog sees the food in my hand she may try several things in hopes of getting the food. Actually, if my dog sees food she WILL offer many different behaviors without me uttering a word. The question is, would she have done anything if food was not present?

If I ask my dog for a “down” and she complies without seeing a treat in my hand, and then I give her the food, I’m reinforcing her for the “down”. How do I know? A reinforcer can only be a reinforcer IF it is presented after a correct response to a request (or cue). Incorrect response equals no reinforcer earned.

Do I ever use a bribe to get my dog to comply? Yes. There are moments when I just need my dog to do something. Maybe it’s a situation that we haven’t trained for or I’m caught off guard with my dog’s response and need to get her out of the situation fast. Food is my go to - and it works. Problem averted, but it wasn’t training. And sometimes averting a problem is far more important in the moment than worrying about reinforcing, rewarding or bribing.

Happy training!

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