Are we not just rewarding the bad behavior?
When we think about using treats to train dogs, we usually associate it with rewarding desired behaviors. And this makes sense. We ask the dog to Sit and he does, and we give a treat. We ask the dog to Stay and he does, and we give a treat. So why do behavior consultants tell you to “rain food” on the dog when he’s barking uncontrollably at the dog across the street? Isn’t that just rewarding the dog for barking? Why would we want to do that???
The confusion comes from a misunderstanding of the different kinds of training, or conditioning, that trainers and behavior specialists are doing. When we’re teaching tricks and skills, such as Sit or Stay, the dog is learning that by operating on their environment in specific ways, they can cause a specific outcome. “If I put my bum on the floor, Mama will give me a piece of cheese.”
This process is known as Operant Conditioning and it is the foundation of learning theory. It works primarily by the principle of Edward Thorndike’s Law of Effect which states: “Responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation (Gray, 2011, p. 108-109).”
So, for example, if you ask your dog to Sit and he does and the result is a bite of cheese (pleasant outcome), he’s likely to sit again the next time you ask for that skill. On the flip side, if you ask your dog to Sit and when he does, you yell at him, he will be less likely to sit again the next time you ask.
CLASSICAL COUNTER CONDITIONING/RESPONDENT CONDITIONING
Okay, but what about giving treats when the dog is barking at another dog across the street? Aren’t we teaching him that barking (operating on his environment) gets him treats, and so he’ll be more likely to bark the next time he sees a dog across the street?
Well, as it happens, the short answer is actually ‘no.’ In this scenario, the dog’s barking is an emotional response to an environmental “trigger.” And emotions cannot be reinforced (rewarded) or punished. Only behaviors can be reinforced or punished. So, in this situation, we are doing something called Classical Counter Conditioning (or Respondent Conditioning). This concept goes back to Pavlov and his dogs who salivated when they heard the bell that indicated food was coming.
What Is Classical Conditioning?
In short, Classical conditioning is simply making what we call a Paired Association. A = B. These kinds of associations happen all the time, and depending on what’s being associated, they can cause either a pleasant or unpleasant emotional response. The microwave dings and you know your food is ready (pleasant). You see siren lights behind you on the highway (unpleasant) and you immediately check your speed. The dog sees you pick up his leash (pleasant) and gets excited for a walk.
In the scenario above, when our dog sees another dog across the street, he has an unpleasant emotional response and barks to tell the other dog to go away. But, if we start ‘raining’ cheese or steak or some other super tasty treat every time our dog sees another dog across the street, something happens. Our dog starts to associate those strange dogs with super tasty food. Our dog starts to anticipate super tasty treats falling from the sky when they see unfamiliar dogs! And their emotional response is no longer “Oh no! Get away!” The emotional response becomes more like “Oh, hey! Dogs mean string cheese!” You will find that your dog stops barking and may even start looking around for other dogs so they can get more tasty treats.
Because these associations are happening all the time, we have a saying in the training world that “Pavlov is always sitting on your shoulder” (Bob Bailey). This is because even when we’re using operant conditioning to teach tricks and skills, the dog is still making associations with all sorts of things in the environment.
So now you know – even though we use treats for both training and behavior modification, they are serving two different functions and we are not always ‘rewarding bad behavior’ even when we use food while bad behavior is occurring. Timing is important to create the right association. So if your dog is struggling with behavior issues, please enlist the help of a certified professional dog trainer who is committed to a force free and fear free training process to help you and your pup learn better coping skills.
Author - Jody Epstein
Jody Epstein is a certified behavior consultant, certified professional dog trainer, and holds a master’s degree in animal behavior from Tufts University. She has been training professionally for more than 12 years and is pleased to be part of the Academy of Pet Careers team, teaching the next generation of trainers. Look out for her blogs on all things dog training and animal behavior.