Why Positive Training Is Not Bribery

Photo by Kevin Lowery | www.kevinlowery.com

Photo by Kevin Lowery | www.kevinlowery.com

Many who discount the power of positive training often frown upon the use of food in training and claim that it is tantamount to bribery.  Having heard this argument from traditional trainers ad nauseum, I have finally determined that it is usually motivated by one of two things (or maybe both):

1.   A desire to have the dog ‘work’ for his food simply because it’s what we want, and given that we’re smarter, stronger and in charge, that should be enough,
2.   An unnecessary and unfounded fear that once the food stops flowing, the unwanted behaviors will return.

As for the first point, there’s not much we can do with someone who feels the need to dominate such an eager-to-please species, so we’ll leave that one for their human psychologists.  And while the second point above is a more understandable concern, this frequently-repeated myth not only completely disregards the scientific fact that food literally alters an animal’s brain chemistry, but also suggests a fundamental lack of understanding regarding the basic scientific principles of how reward-based training (conditioning) works.

To truly comprehend why food is so powerful, you must first understand the influence it has on the dog’s brain. Food has the power to not only enhance a dog’s ability to learn but  also helps a dog overcome fear or anxiety by raising the levels of dopamine in the brain and stimulating the desire to seek or move towards the food reward. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in reward-driven learning and helps regulate movement and emotional responses. If a dog is presented with food before he reaches a high stress level in the presence of a stimulus that scares him, a positive emotional response occurs. There are circuits in the dog’s brain that encourage seeking or hunting behavior and circuits that elicit the fear response. When you present food to your dog you turn on his seeker system, effectively turning off the fear. This is one reason why using food for activities such as scent work is so valuable for fearful/aggressive dogs. Turning on the thinking brain deactivates the emotional brain, enhancing a dog’s attentiveness with positive motivation and allowing him to move into a calmer state where learning can take place. Therefore, because food is incompatible with fear, using food treats for teaching is incredibly valuable, especially when it comes to modifying a dog’s anxiety and stress.

The food that is used to motivate your dog to learn must be of high value to him until he is responding reliably. Once this has been achieved, the high-value food should only be used intermittently, meaning that your dog doesn’t always get rewarded with food every time he responds to a cue, but with an alternate reward that might be of lesser value to him, such as praise. Because the dog never knows when a treat is coming he will continue to respond in anticipation that food will appear again in the future.

Such intermittent reinforcement actually makes your dog respond faster and more reliably because this learning is based on the same concept that makes a casino slot machine so addictive. It would be wonderful if a slot machine gave out money every time you played it, but unfortunately that doesn’t happen. The potential, however, that you could win the jackpot with the very next pull of the lever makes you want to play even more.

Imagine you arrived at work tomorrow and were called into your boss’ office. You like your job (pretend if you have to), and are generally quite good at it. Your boss praises you for your good work and tells you how glad he is to have you on the team, and then informs you that as of that moment, you’d no longer be receiving any salary. When you ask why, he simply states that you should be glad to work for him because he’s in charge and you’re not, and that that should be enough for you. I don’t know anyone who would put up with those terms, and yet that’s the dynamic that opponents of reward-based training suggest we employ with our dogs.  Nuts.

Finally, while food should certainly be used as a reward for a dog that is food motivated, rewards such as toys, praise and play can be just as powerful if a dog happens to be motivated by them.  You can enhance your dog’s ability to learn by using whatever motivates him the most first and then varying the rewards you use as your dog becomes proficient at the particular cue or action you are teaching him.   Any reward which motivates a dog to learn is a great training tool because learning not only makes a dog more confident and able to live successfully in a domestic environment, it also encourages mutual understanding that increases the human/animal bond.  This is not bribery.

Bottom line: if a dog sees that there are pleasurable consequences for a behavior then he is more likely to repeat the behavior because doing so makes him feel good.  When a person is attached to that good feeling there is more likelihood of the dog listening and responding to whatever that person asks of him.  That is why I have never understood why people choose to train their dogs using force and punishment or who belittle the power of rewards in training. I want my dogs to do the things I want them to do because they want to, not because I have made them do it through force.

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44 thoughts on “Why Positive Training Is Not Bribery

  1. Nora Lenz

    Thank you for this article, Victoria. I'm so grateful that, early in my career as a dog handler, I met a brilliant behaviorist who taught me positive methods that make dog training pleasant and even fun. Before that, I was employing the old "show them who's boss" methods of dog training, with the usual spotty and unpredictable results. There is no question that positive reinforcement methods are not only better for us and the dog, but also work almost unfailingly, if they are properly and consistently applied.

  2. Sandy Wittliff

    thanks for the over view. I live in an area that has a number of highly aggressive trainers and i am always getting the dogs after these trainers do their deal and the dog no long trusts humans.

    Thanks again

    Sandy Wittliff

  3. SurfsUpPUp!

    So true! I have always tried to explain that it is NOT bribery, it is motivation. It is much more effective than dominance.

  4. Kathy

    I work with rescue dogs, i use positive re re-enforcement and behaviour adjustment training as i deal with dogs that are fearful and aggressive . I totally agree with your artical and this method is the best not just for dogs but parrots as well,
    I try to get people to understand that it works wonders. i enjoy reading up on your articals and will look forward to reading more in the future, in the mean time i am working on pepper a fearful chihuahua and he is doing very well bless him. I cant read people because of my disability so i work with dogs and parrots. Keep up the good work you do.

  5. Tommye

    I really liked this article. I've been a followe of your methods ever since I first saw you on Animal Planet. Your book helped me tons with my beautiful rescue Collie, Jagger. He is a smart dog, but he was wildly hyper when I first got him from the pound. Your excellent methods enabled me to walk and train that out of him in less than a week! A tired dog is a happy dog, indeed! LOL! Thank you, Victoria!

  6. Ellen Tamarkin

    My family rescued an american Cocker Spaniel when he was four months old. He is now four years old and he is extremely scared of noises. He marks all over the house but is potty trained. He barks at people who come to our house we have to put him outside or in his kennel so he will not bite. We kennel him when we leave and kennel him at night. We love him. When he is calm he is the most loving dog! Please help. How can we use positive training to help him.

  7. Vickie Marx

    Bravo Victoria, for the past 34 years I have been training dogs with rewards and praise. I have had to retrain countless dogs with behavior issues due to other trainers using dominance training techniques..When yoy train a dog with rewards, the spirit and personality of the dog remains in tact. They are not responding out of fear but out of confidence.

    Thank you for this article.

  8. Jeffrey

    Our 15 month old Lab/Bloodhound mix and I are at the end of my rope. I've tried other ways of training and it has ended in neither one of us learning a thing. This is my last straw. I am at the end of my rope with this dog. He is VERY stubborn. One of us is going to the wood shed and its not going to be me.

  9. Nancy Langlois

    Thank you for this article. I have had a few clients questioning positive training and I believe you
    have given a great answer to their questions. I will be sending this along to these clients to help
    educate them about our positive training. Thank you again.

  10. Kim Best

    As always, superior learning tools for us all! Maybe someday we'll all "get it"! Keep up the great work Victoria!

  11. Christy Paxton

    This issue drives me nuts as a trainer. So glad you posted this!

    I usually use one or more of the following to counter this type of thinking about bribery/treats:

    - Would you work for free? Neither will your dog.
    - A bribe is given before the action is performed; a paycheck is delivered after. Your dog is getting his paycheck.
    - I start dogs at full paycheck and full benefits, then slowly turn them into happy volunteers that work for the occasional gold watch and pat on the back!

    I've also noticed that most people haven't a clue how to wean off treats or progress exercises. So giving them plenty of instruction about that is also helpful (e.g. "Here's what to do next..."; "Eventually, you want to get to...").

  12. Denine Phillips

    Thank you, Victoria! Your article confirms that what I did to acclimate my fearful German Shepherd puppy to new people, places and things was correct. The high-value treat was hot dog, and later dried lamb lung, which redirected his state-of-mind from anxiety to pleasure. There's no doubt that an overbearing approach, devoid of reward, would not have produced the same well-mannered, confident adult dog.

  13. Marion O'Neil

    I try to explain how the treat will turn into a bribe if not properly used. I ask people to put the magic hands behind their backs before they ask for the cue. When the dog correctly responds to the cue now hand the dog the treat as if you're saying " DUH- DAH you just won a prize Pup!"

  14. Judy A Bridges

    The service dog/psd trainer we have uses the same methods you do. I've seen it work with my stubborn male (neurtered) chihuahua Jack who is now my husbands PSD Service dog. I love your training methods and am looking forward to start training my own mobility/psd service dog (Great Dane) as soon as one is found for me. Love your shows and your news letters.

  15. Wendy Wahman

    Christy Paxton, great list as well. Especially, "I start dogs at full paycheck and full benefits, then slowly turn them into happy volunteers that work for the occasional gold watch and pat on the back!"

  16. Sandra Brigham

    The hard part for me is understanding why people hate it when a dog starts looking to see if you have food in your pockets or hands when you just completely changed how the dog feels about something.

  17. TJam

    Love the article but totally struggling with the white on black. By the time I get to bottom of page, I can't see the text any more

  18. Brenda winkler

    This all sounds great, but what do you do when even food can not motivate?

    My 5 month old puppy will not do anything I ask her to unless she is REALLY hungry, and sometimes not even then! Treat training only works for 5 or 6 attempts, then she just stops working altogether.

    I don't want to dominate my dog, but I CAN NOT have an undisciplined dog running my household! I have 3 children who would love to take their dog for a walk, but can't because the dog pulls them all over the place! And I am not comfortable leaving my 11 year old daughter alone with the dog because the dog will often "bully" her by playing rough, and nipping at her.

    I'm all for treat training and positive reinforcement, but when that does not work, what else is there besides dominance training?

  19. Michael Haslam

    The whole domination method is based on observing wolves in captivity but since wolves have been returned to the wild observation has shown wolves act as a family and co-operate since fighting for dominance resulted in wasteful injury and evolved the sets of dominant and submissive gestures that dog language is based on, there is no need to beat a dog to them a lesson. A couple were outside a shop today and I stopped to stroke their beautiful collie, they asked me did I hear their other dog barking in the car parked down the road I replied I hadn't. They explained that on the beach earlier their dog went past the beach wall and accidently bumped into some sheep which were out of sight, they said the dog chased the sheep and they HAD to beat the dog to teach him not to chase the sheep and he was left in the car as punishment so he would learn. I did try to explain why their approach was wrong and the dog wouldn't learn by this method but they felt they were being responsible and hated having to do it but it was for the dogs own good I could have done with you by my side to communicate in terms they would understand how misguided they were. I always carry treats with me but I only reward dogs I meet when they sit and are calm so not to reward bad behaviour such as jumping up and over excitement. Keep up the good work and trying to change hearts and minds, it's going to happen overnight because there is a well established cultural mindset in place.

  20. Lisa

    I have a 2 almost 2 1/2 year old shepherd that is dog aggressive, because he was ALMOST attacked by a couple of neighbor dogs when he was a pup...I have had a trainer come up and she wants me to walk him with a prong collar and to do circles with him to calm him down, when he sees the strange dogs...I have tried this, but he still gets so worked up when he sees the dog and he could care less if he has the prong collar on. He will still try to get the dog that came after him when he was a pup. It makes it real hard to walk by the dog and I unfortunately have to go by that house when I take him for walks..

  21. jerry lake

    Thanks Victoria.

    Working with pointers and brittany's ans setters, I've always cherished the keen sense of relationship these breeds exhibit. Their desire to please but more importantly their willingness to work in collaboration, as a team is, in my opinion, one of their greatest attributes. Positively rewarding through touch, praise, or treat consistantly applied are simply the easiest, most effective way to build and strengthen those relationships.

  22. Jy Lisowski

    terrific article. was just speaking to my neighbor/client about the power of high value treats as a reinforcer. forwarding article to her now 🙂 thank ms. v!

  23. Esmeralda Galvao

    This great article is something I've been dreaming of reading for a long time.
    I've used food rewarding with great success, even with my dog who was terrified of thunder and have never been able to understand why some people react negatively to it.
    Thank you so much for the explanation! I've already shared this page in my FB and totally recommenf it.

  24. Premier Dogs

    Great article - nicely said.

    Almost all of my work is behavioural in nature and I get no shortage of dogs that were previously exposed to aversive/dominance trainers, and of course dogs whose owners have copycatted the methods of 'you know who'.

    In addition, books and videos that preach the 'traditional' methods still line the shelves of stores and libraries, and the internet is chock full of advice from completely unqualified people. Many people mean well and look for help, but end up following antiquated advice. To say it's a frustrating state of affairs is an understatement.

    I've never EVER had to use physical or psychological intimidation on the dogs I work with. The aversive/dominance trainers put dogs in a position to fail then punish them for it, while I put dogs in a position to succeed and then reward them for it.

    Why is it, for humans, doing the 'wrong' thing always seems to be the easier path to travel?

    Keep up the excellent work Victoria, and let's all be the best advocates that we can be on behalf of our canine friends. 🙂

  25. Jennifer Nelson

    Thank you for this article. For those of us out there not sure who to listen to when it comes to training our dogs, information/education is what I trust and I see reward based training with my dog does work miracles - even when there is no treat. The above information really makes a lot of sense. Food is their brain "reward" and the good behavior is a cool outcome.

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  27. Laura Castle

    hiya! i am training to be a dog behaviorist so currently learning about how the dogs brain works, and yes i do agree positive training is the way forward. However i have mixed opinions, a friend once told me a half Ceaser, half Victoria way of thinking when it comes to our dogs! I have 4 dogs and watch them interact everyday and there is no doubt they are pack animals and one works as the 'boss' or more 'dominant' dog. I trained them all with clicker and treats but they do respect me and understand i am 'top dog'.
    Is it you don't think dogs are dominant over others or is it you just think dominance based training methods are whats wrong?
    Also a very interesting point, i work with rescue at the moment and over half of them are not bothered by food at all, so trying to train them with food is a fail!

  28. Linda Woodbury

    Thank you for this article. I have a gentleman in one of my classes who refuses to give his rescue beagle any thing but his kibble for training treats. I plan on giving him a copy of this article. Hopefully it will change his mind.

  29. Jean Hoyle-Dodds

    I have a disability assistance dog, and this is my second dog, the positive reinforcement method is used with 100% success at Support Dogs, as they use dogs that have been given or for a first disabiliity assistance dog the person's own pet dog. My dog is 100% reliable for task work and behaviour making me fully independant and giving me full independance even when travelling abroad. I learnt so much from this positive training and both my dogs have been so happy in their daily lives.
    Thanks for this article it reinforces what i have already learnt

  30. Tracy McCormack

    I love this article and can't wait to share it with our puppy raisers! I am a dog trainer for Patriot PAWS Service Dogs and you wouldn't believe the number of people that suggest, in their tone of voice, that "of course the dog is doing what you want...you're bribing him with food!" I've used the same idea of job/money that you did in your article so many times. Thank you for your continued shared insight and commitment to positive re-enforcement training! Keep up the great work you do!!!!!

  31. Vqlerie Parfitt

    Hi have read your article and was very impressed. I have a problem with my rottwieler she keeps rolling is this usual for dogs to do

  32. Ken Ehlers

    So does that mean Pavlov was right or wrong? Certainly he proved his point that a potential reward elicits a reaction in a dog. But how about the military training the dogs that save so many lives of our members of the military in combat situations receive? One of them is a soft play toy of their own that is given dogs after a stressful mission for them to play with. The dogs don't destroy them, but rather play with them in what is a dog's way, and get very upset if anyone but the handler tries to take them away. These toys help relieve stress and it has been shown that without the toy the dog does not perform as well, regardless of how many food treats are provided to the dog.

    How many of you have a soft toy animal for the dog, in his/her kennel for them to unwind with after a busy day? Try this and you are likely to find the animal misbehaves less if accidentally left out while you are gone, and they have their toy to play with, It works. They are also much happier in a kennel, it gives them a "baby" to guard of their own.

  33. Olivia

    Just because you don't use food or treats in training though does not mean it isnt positive. I work hard with my dog as well and love that she does things to please. Her reward is a nice home, great family, healthy food, tons of exercise and lots of furry friends. I dont understand if some can learn without treats why people think we are mean or have to use them. Food does not equal love peopple 🙂

  34. Russell Hartstein

    Concise, clear and to the point. Excellent article. I find that positive reinforcement, what we practice in miami dog training is easy to describe yet clients and other trainers have difficulty understanding or implementing positive reinforcement. A basic knowledge of human and canine psychology should put this debate to rest once and for all. 🙂 Thank you! Russell Hartstein

  35. The Cat

    For some really great information about positive reinforcement training, check out Dr. Sophia Yin: http://drsophiayin.com/. I love, love, LOVE what she does, and I have to tell you all that the PRT DOES work! I'm working with my year-and-a-half old Chihuahua, and he's responded so very well!

  36. K. Vedrinski

    Great, great article!! Thank you! I have three mixed breed, rescues. They're far from perfect, and so am I, but I wouldn't trade them, for anything. I've always been and always will be a believer in positive reinforcement, whatever the reinforcing tool, might be. I am of the belief that the dominance methods, only brings added anxiety initially, and at some point the risk of breaking the dog's spirit, if you will, is way too high.

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  39. Shanna Stichler

    Ok, I know I'm coming in late to the party here. Please forgive me, I just now discovered this awesome blog!

    I am currently training an assistance dog for myself. Specifically, I am training a guide dog, a lovely female German Shepherd. When I train her, I use verbal markers to teach the behaviors I want from her, and of course high-value food rewards. It works wonderfully. The dog is learning very very quickly and absolutely loves her job.

    That said, because this dog will literally act as my eyes, I do have to apply carefully timed aversives in certain situations. For instance, my dog needs to know that it is never, ever OK for her to watch the squirrels, or the pet dog behind us, or chase leaves, while guiding me across a busy street. I do not have time in a situation like that to stop moving and redirect the dog or whatever, so I usually apply a verbal "no, find the curb." If that isn't sufficient, and it usually is if I'm reading the dog well, then I have no problem giving a well-timed collar correction. In most situations, if it's safe for me to do so, I will refocus my dog with obedience work or simply redirect her attention back to me when she gets distracted by something. Also, one thing about guide dogs is that they hate doing things over. So if my dog runs me into a pole or something, all I have to do is stop, back up a few steps, and ask her to try again. She invariably does better on the rework, and remembers when another obstacle in our path appears.

    So while I strive to use positive training methods whenever I can, I do think there is a place forr thoughtfully applied aversives, particularly if the acttual safety of the handler is at stake.

  40. Adri

    Brilliantly stated. I feel many people shy away from "treat training" because they're afraid they will only respond when they have food. It's not treat training, it's positive reinforcement. It amazes me that people aren't afraid to give their dog an electric shock but they're afraid to use food in training. It's completely backwards.

  41. Laurence Brown

    OK....here's a question: I have an issue currently where my neighbours Staffy gets aggressive at the fence which causes my Lhasa Apso to react. This has escalated to the point that the Staffy managed to break through the fence. At what point should I introduce a reward to MY dog to prevent him from escalating at the fence given that he can go from placid ball of fluff to psychotic nutbag in the time it takes to run 5 yards to the fence. Also - how do I then get him away from the fence, let him know that I don't want him to react like that and then reward him without him thinking that he's being rewarded for the initial behaviour? I am currently using a bottle of water to squirt him in the face as it's the only thing that seems to break his attention long enough to be able to command him again (once he's away from the fence he's reasonably controllable).

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