Top 5 Complaints About Reward Based Training

I wholeheartedly recommend reward-based training. This type of training is based on rewarding the dog with the things that she likes (e.g., food, toys) when the dog performs a behavior correctly. This type of training is a kinder and more effective way to teach our canine friends, however no method is perfect. If you have had some challenges using treats to train your pet, read on!

The Problem: My dog only listens to me when I have a treat or a toy.

Why it happens: Owners inadvertently teach dogs to listen only when they have something in their hand (e.g., a treat), are standing near the treat jar or wearing a treat bag, so that is the only time that their dogs listen.

Dogs are excellent at reading their environment. If each time that you train with treats, you wear a treat bag or you stand near the treat jar, your dog will learn that she only has the opportunity to get treats when you give that additional signal. By the same token if you always hold a treat in your hand or reach into the treat bag when you give your dog the cue to sit, she will only sit when you give those extra signals.
If you teach your dog that when she refuses to sit on the first request, you will reach in your pocket for a treat to lure her into the sit, she will only respond when she sees the treat. Why should she waste her energy?

Finally, if you only use treats at home and never out in public, your dog will only respond to you at home because that is the only place where she was rewarded.

The Fix: Teach your dog that there is always an opportunity for reward by trying the following exercises once you feel like your dog has a good understanding of the behavior.

We are going to use “sit” as the sample behavior. Ask your dog to sit randomly throughout the day or evening without moving your hands. Wait at 10 seconds for her to sit. If she sits in that time, praise her and give her a treat. If she doesn’t sit in that time, reach into your pocket, show her what she missed and say, “oops.” Then, put the treat back in your pocket and walk away. If she follows you, ignore her. Wait a minutes and try again. If she responds, reward her. You are teaching her to respond even when you don’t move your hands and she doesn’t see a treat. Incorporate the behaviors that you want your dog to perform into your daily life so that your dog never knows when you will be asking her to perform. This will help her to generalize to many different situations as well as teaching her that there is opportunity to get a reward even when it doesn’t look like a training situation.

The Problem: I don’t want to carry treats forever. I think that my dog should do things for me because I ask her to and she loves me.

Why it happens: Seriously?! What if your boss said that she didn’t want to pay you forever? She just doesn’t have the time and it is a lot of trouble for her to write out the check each week. I mean, she has to pick up the pen and get the checkbook. It is sooo time consuming! How long would you continue to go to work? A dog’s agenda doesn’t include sitting down when you ask her to or lying down on cue instead of chasing squirrels. You ask your dog to do completely unnatural things each day and she deserves payment for those things. If you stop rewarding those behaviors, your dog will stop offering them just as you would eventually stop working if your boss stopped paying you.

The Fix: Understand reinforcement schedules. The most powerful reinforcement schedule is variable reinforcement. This means that you sometimes give a treat and you sometimes don’t for each individual behavior. Start this schedule when your dog can perform the behavior 9 out of 10 times correctly the first time that you ask her in most situations. For example: Once your dog knows how to sit, you will reward her with food on every 1, 5, 9 and 10th try and with petting and praise on the 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8th try.  Your dog may need treats in certain situations (e.g., the veterinarian’s office) forever. Remember if you stop rewarding a behavior entirely, your dog will stop offering it!

The Problem: My dog only performs the behavior when she isn’t stressed.

Why it happens: Some dogs are just too fearful and anxious in certain situations to perform. Other dogs have not been taught to perform in that situation and need to be taught to do so. This is called generalization.

The Fix: When you teach a behavior, you have to teach it in lots of places so that your dog can generalize. When your dog can perform the behavior in your house, practice it in the back yard, then the front yard, then on walks, etc. The more stressful the situation is, the more likely your dog is to mess up so be patient and don’t be afraid to make it easier.

The Problem: I don’t want my dog to get fat so I don’t use treats to train her.

Why it happens: The fact is that dogs are becoming overweight in the United States in record numbers with and without treat training. We overfeed and underexercise our dogs. Another problem is the size of the average dog treat. Most commercial dog treats are way too large.

The Fix: Use properly sized, low fat treats and reduce the amount of food that your dog gets in her food bowl. Treats, regardless of the size of the dog, should be between 1⁄4-1⁄2 the size of a dime. Owners can use treats that are low in fat such as freeze-dried liver or chicken breast. Higher value, low-fat treats include part-skim mozzarella and white meat chicken breast. Just as you might have a light dinner if you had a big lunch, keep your dog’s dinner light if you used a lot of treats that day in training.

The Problem: My dog doesn’t like treats.

Why it happens: Certain dogs just aren’t treat motivated. Some dogs are more motivated by
toys, sniffing the grass or being let out to play.

The Fix: Get creative. Try different treats of various value for your dog. If you have been trying crunchy treats, try soft treats of people food (low-fat). If your dog really isn’t food motivated, find what does make her tail wag and use that for training. Some commonly used non-food rewards are: petting, brushing, tossing a toy, playing tug, freedom to run in the yard, going on a walk, and playing with another dog. Remember to save your dog’s special toy as a reward for training so it will keep its value.


What Are Industry Leaders Saying About Dr. Radosta?

Every once in a while, a veterinary unicorn comes along: competent, confident, compassionate, and a great communicator. Brimming with science and soul. Dr. Lisa Radosta is a true "Jill of all trades," fighting important battles and inspiring future leaders. She has played a big role in making animal behavior important, elevating females in our profession, and showing action steps to make a balance between work and home doable. Equally comfortable in the exam room or coming into people's living room via network TV, Dr. Lisa Radosta fights tirelessly to help pets and people live happier, healthier, fuller lives. I often watch her at the podium, in a board meeting, or in an interview and just think..."you go, girl!

Dr. Marty Becker

Dr. Radosta is exceedingly passionate about each individual animal and understands by helping a pet she is also helping families; her passion is only exceeded by her knowledge to make a difference. Dr. Radosta is also a master communicator, whether it is explaining behavior modification to families desperate for exactly what Dr. Radosta and her team provide to communicating to professional colleagues at veterinary meetings.

Steve Dale, CABC

Every single day Dr. Radosta is making the world a better place for dogs and cats suffering from fear, stress, and anxiety. She's highly regarded by veterinarians and board-certified behaviorists alike and I am honored to have worked alongside her to educate pet parents about the importance of caring for our pet's mental health -- she's my "go-to" for video or blog interviews on behavior topics. I've also been a client of Dr. Radosta's behavior practice and I credit her with opening my eyes back in 2006 to how FAS affects our pets' quality of life. 

Kristen Levine