Thursday, March 5, 2015

When can I stop using treats?

We get this question pretty frequently in our classes and it is a really great one to ask. We all want to have our dogs listen to us regardless of the status of the chicken in our pockets!

Before I get to answering the exact question at hand, first I have one of my own to ask. How long would you continue to go to your job if they stopped paying you? A few days? Probably. A week? Less likely. Forever? No way! Even if you’d been reliably working for MANY years.

What if your job was new and you were still sometimes struggling to figure out what they wanted you to do? You’d probably quit even quicker.

We all have things in our lives we’d rather be doing than going to work. Even those of us who love our jobs, won’t do them forever if we aren’t being paid.

Does this mean you are forever destined to having treat crumbs in your pockets? Absolutely not! This is because there are things in your dog’s life that he wants just as much (if not more than) as a food treat. We just happen to use food in our training because it is the easiest to control and deliver quickly.

For example, when teaching wait at the door, we never use treats because we don’t need them. Allowing the dog to walk through the door to the outside is its own, real-life, reinforcer for the behavior of waiting politely at the door.

In psychology, there is something known as the Premack principle which states that more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors. It’s a fancy way of stating the “dessert rule” where kids only get dessert if they eat their dinner. You reinforce the eating of dinner (less likely) with the eating of dessert (more likely).

In dog training, we use the Premack principle to fade away our treats. We all know things dogs are likely to do: chase squirrels, sniff grass, play ball, etc. and we can use all of these things as non-food reinforcers for behaviors. For example: ask your dog to sit, then tell him to “go sniff” that fire hydrant. Or he can offer nice eye contact for the chance to chase a tennis ball. The opportunities are endless. Now you can keep paying your dog without having to have a pocket full of cookies!

There are many different, more advanced, ways to start fading away your treats, this is simply one of our favorites. If you want to know more, be sure to ask.