Sometimes, training your dog can feel exactly like rocket science.
Picture this: you’re standing in your living room, pocket bursting with morsels of jerky or yoghurt drops, hand primed and ready. “Buffy, sit!” Buffy stares. “Sit, Buffy, sit!” Buffy blinks at you, deeply confused about this new game and wondering when she can resume shredding your lucky pair of socks.
Been there? Don’t be shy now – we have too. Training a dog can be an enormously rewarding experience but also a seriously difficult one. After all, when two species don’t speak the same language things can get complicated. So to rescue you from another embarrassing performance at obedience club – where Buffy would prefer to practice her flying-pirouette – we decided to dig deep into the science of using treats for training.
Why should I use treats to train?
Let’s assume you have a 9-5 job. Every morning you diligently show up, settle into your cubicle, spend the day painstakingly punching numbers and completing reports. You trek home, exhausted, spending the rest of your night on the couch binge-watching Friends and binge-eating popcorn. Rinse and repeat. On Monday you eagerly await your pay check, a generous reward for all your hard work – but there isn’t one.
For dogs, rewards – treats in particular – are like their pay check. It’s confirmation of a job well-done and motivation to keep doing it. Training without rewards is like working for no pay check: it’s not motivating, it’s not fun, and we’d rather be on the couch watching Friends.
Why are treats so useful when training?
Ready for things to get scientific?
Dogs are operant learners. In basic terms, they learn by consequences – good or bad, or by consequences that punish behaviour or reinforce behaviour. In operant conditioning, a dog learns by building associations between a behaviour and a consequence for that behaviour, which informs how they will act in the future.
This is where things get complicated.
Training your dog with operant conditioning
Have you ever used the terms ‘positive reinforcement’ or ‘negative reinforcement’? Chances are, you’ve been using them wrong. To truly understand Operant Conditioning, you need to understand the terminology
Welcome to Psychology 101. Glasses on? Absurdly expensive textbooks at the ready? Then let’s begin.
The scientific definition of a ‘positive’ behaviour means to add or apply something. It actually has very little to do with the behaviour being ‘good!’ Similarly, a ‘negative’ behaviour means to subtract or take away something. To reinforce something means to strengthen or increase a behaviour. To punish something means to weaken or decrease a behaviour. Whilst these terms might seem confusing separately, together they make up the four quadrants of operant conditioning, which goes as follows:
- A favourable outcome occurs or is given after a desired behaviour. For example: Buffy receives a treat after sitting on command.
- An unfavourable outcome occurs or is given after an undesired behaviour. For example, on a walk, you put pressure on the leash when Buffy is pulling.
- An unpleasant or unfavourable outcome is removed when the desired behaviour is presented. For example, Buffy stops pulling, and so you release the pressure on the leash.
- A favourable outcome is removed after an undesired behaviour is performed. For example, you reach down to give Buffy a yoghurt drop, but she jumps up – so she no longer receives it.
The scientific method of operant conditioning doesn’t just work with dogs – it works with mice, rats, sea-life and even humans! Almost everybody experiences operant conditioning in their day-to-day life, and almost everybody inadvertently uses it with their dogs (or cats, or mice, or rats, or…. dolphins?), often without meaning to.
So, now that we understand just why rewards are so effective at teaching dogs – and scientifically proven to work! – we can discuss how to use treats to successfully teach and reward your dog.
What treats should I use to train?
When using treats to positively reinforce a dog you should always be using something high-value. Remember that paycheck metaphor? Now imagine instead of being paid money for your hard work, you were given peanuts. Not only is that not going to pay the rent, it would especially suck for an anaphylactic.
High-value treats are anything particularly delicious that your dog is not frequently given. Like us people, many dogs have distinct and specific tastes – so what is Buffy considers as high value might not be the same for Cujo. Experiment with treats of different flavours, textures, and ingredients. Your dog might prefer the full-flavoured crunch of liver to the sweetness of yoghurt drops. It’s your job to figure out their favourites and treat accordingly.
Pro tip! No need to break the bank with training treats. When training with treats, a little should go a long way. Break up your jerky (or drops, or biscuits, or cheese, or whatever your high-value reward is) into tiny pieces to stop your doggo from getting full too early in the session.
Treats are one of the most effective tools we have to train our furry fam, and a sure-fire way to boost your dog’s obedience-IQ and your relationship. Understanding Operant Conditioning and how to navigate the world of treats to find the perfect fit, and you’ll be on the fast-track to a dog that can not only sit – but speak, stay, drop, and sit-pretty too!