The Dog Knowledge

Treats as Rewards


With dogs there are a handful of Primary Reinforcers: Two of the most obvious are Food & Water. Secondary Reinforcers include Praise, Clicker, Toys, etc. In other words, those things that a dog requires to survive are Primary Reinforcers. Those things that bring pleasure to a dog are Secondary Reinforcers. As trainers we like to utilize Secondary Reinforcers coupled with Primary Reinforcers for maximum impact in training. We also know that once a dog begins to associate Secondary Reinforcers with Primary Rewards, those Secondary Reinforcers take on more value. And finally, through studies we know that when Positive and Reinforcement (both Primary and Secondary) are dished out in a variety of forms, a variety of volume and at varying and random intervals, they are most effective.

In layman terms it’s this simple. Keep your dog guessing. The reason he enjoys Secondary Reinforcers is because in the beginning they were paired with Primary Reinforcers such as food. As your relationship builds with your dog, Secondary Reinforcers such as praise and a pat on the head become more and more important as your dog wants to please you. However make no mistake, your dog also has in the back of his mind that maybe, just maybe the Secondary Reinforcement just might be paired with a juicy piece of chicken.

Constantly I am asked as a trainer, when can we wean off of treats? Or worse, I am told, I don’t bribe my dog with treats. I only use praise. Or even worse, I don’t use praise or treats. I only use punishment when my dog disobeys.

My analogy to those people should make the differences crystal clear.

Scenario 1. You go to work for Bank of America and your boss tells you that he is going to put a shock collar around your neck. Every time you do something wrong you will get an electric shock. After a few nasty experiences, your boss no longer even needs to administer the shock. Just holding up the remote control is all it takes to keep you working and in line.

Scenario 2. You go to work for Bank of America and your boss tells you that you are not going to be paid for what you do but instead of money, he is going to give you a tremendous amount of praise for any of your accomplishments. Day after day you work hard and time after time your boss pats you on the back and tells you good job. Hmmmmmmmm.

Scenario 3. You go to work for Bank of America and your boss tells you that he is going to teach you exactly what he expects of you. He will load you down with praise and bonuses for each accomplishment. Occasionally, once you know your job if you slip up and start goofing off he might in fact correct your behavior. However, most of the time he is going to pay you a great salary and best of all your salary will be commensurate with your accomplishments. In other words, if you do something awesome, you will receive a HUGE bonus. And best of all, you never really know what that bonus might be. Maybe a new car, maybe a cruise, maybe just a dinner on the town with your sweetheart.

Is there any question which scenario has you working harder, happier with yourself and most of all respecting, admiring and genuinely caring about your boss?

I rest my case.