Is Positive Reinforcement Training Just “Tricks for Treats”?

I had a client recently that I had to part ways with due to so many things, but at the top of the list was the fact that she was stoned or passed out while I was at her apartment trying to train her dog. It was a very sad situation as the dog actually made wonderful progress with me the first week, but I never was able to show that to his owner. I had to end things before she got to see the training in action as it was just a very bad environment.
Through text I went over all the commands the dog had learned and offered to send her handouts so she could maintain the training that was done. She refused and told me that all I did was “tricks for treats” and that if she had known that she wouldn’t have hired me. Wait. What?! All I did was tricks for treats!???
Did she not understand that positive reinforcement training relies heavily on using lures, such as treats or toys, and food reinforcement? I sat there for a while trying to process what she had just said. If you read my website you learn everything there is to know about my training methods and my reliance on positive reinforcements and food lures. But clearly she never looked at my website. And foolishly, I never explained to her my methods when we first met. Now, part of that I blame on the fact that the reeking stench of pot smoke and cigarettes was making it hard for me to actually breathe when we first met. Then when she went into telling me that she used to get her dog high until she realized it was turning him into Cujo, my head was spinning. Every fiber of my being was telling me to get the hell out, but her dog, the cutest pit mix (aside from mine) I’d seen actually smiled at me, with his teeth. He may have been high.
Positive reinforcement training does rely heavily on food rewards and lures. Since food is one of the biggest motivators for dogs, rewarding him for doing the right behavior with a treat pretty much guarantees that he will perform that correct behavior again and again and again … Just like giving a gold star to your toddler for doing something correct, food is like the gold star for dogs. But some people think its the lazy way of training. They see it as a bribe. Or they worry that they’ll have to carry around treats forever just to get their dog to behave. My former client told me she never had to use food to train her dog and that I was messing him up by using treats. I did try to explain the concept of food luring and reward to her, but it was a lost cause at that point.
There are drawbacks to using treats as lures and rewards and any trainer who does will tell you that the hard part is getting the dog to perform the desired behavior without the treat. But it’s a crucial part of positive reinforcement training–its called fading the lure. So if you train your dog to sit by putting a treat to his nose and moving it over his head until his bum hits the ground, food is the lure. (Just an aside: you can teach any behavior without using a food lure, but most positive-only trainers choose the lure over other methods. I use lures and other methods as not all clients want to take the time to fade the lure.) And if you reward that sit with a treat, food is also the reward. If your dog is food-motivated, he will perform that behavior again as long as the food is part of the process. So then you have a dog that will sit, but only for food. Meaning training is nowhere to being complete. If you never get past this point, it is just “tricks for treats.” And then it becomes a bribe.
When I’m thinking straight and don’t have a contact high, I explain the lure method and the other methods of teaching a sit or down so the clients know ahead of time how training will look. As a trainer, it’s up to me to explain this process to my clients so they know upfront that the heavy lifting will come when we start fading the lure and treat rewards. When the dog is suddenly not getting his gold star every single time he sits, he may not sit at first. He knows how to do it, but the picture has changed for him. I explain to my clients how to get around this so they’re not just stuck with a dog with a killer down-stay who has to be treated every single time. I teach them how to get to the point where they can ask for the behavior and get it without doling out more than some verbal praise and a head scratch. It takes time and a commitment from the owners as I can’t always be there to do it for them, but it’s magic when you get there.

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