(By Ana Grimh, CDPT-KA)
As trainers who focus on positive reinforcement, we encourage our clients to use food rewards throughout training, especially during the early stages of learning. However, we understand that some folks feel uncomfortable using so many treats, and worry that they are only bribing their dog and/or they will always need a treat for their dog to perform a skill. These are valid concerns!
As long as you reward correctly, you are not bribing your dog! In the early stages of learning, we will use treats as lures to get your dog to perform different skills (such as sit, down, etc). To reinforce your dog for performing, he/she also receives a food reward. Think of it as motivation to initially learn the skills. Eventually, you will be able to “fade” out the lure, as well as use food rewards more sparingly.
What you will want to do, though, as you continue with training, is to stop rewarding with food on a continuous schedule of reinforcement. This is a fancy phrase that means, “rewarding with a treat after every skill.” With continuous reinforcement, your dog will expect a food reward, and this would be a challenge for you in the future!
In class, we introduce random reinforcement or intermittent schedule of reinforcement. Again, both are just fancy terms to mean, “be unpredictable with your food rewards!” Quick question: Why do people play the slot machines at a casino? Because you never know if the next quarter will produce a huge payoff! By keeping in randomized, you can motivate your dog in a similar fashion. With that said, pick any 5 skills – now, reward your dog with treats for only 2 of the skills, while you reward with a playtime or only praise for the other 3. Next time, switch it up and reward 3 of the skills with food rewards. You will have a hard-working pup in no time!