Dog training – Positive reinforcement with food (treats)

giving dog a treat for positive reinforcement during dog training dog with muzzle and leash

Also a topic which unnecessarily creates fronts, as I think. It should be noted that this article is about principles and not about concrete training. It is about basic aspects, communication and sometimes misunderstandings among dog professionals, in training and teaching, which has to be detailed and accurate in order to maintain a professional level in the long term.

Of course I can use food (treats) for reward, distraction, conditioning, etc., no question at all, also massively by scattering whole “loads” but again – “I don’t have to”.

Food is not the only means to train with a dog in an animal welfare and non aversive way. It is an extremely helpful and, depending on the individual, very “weighty argument” (food/food as part of a basic biological need) for conditioning projects. But also a study might have shown that e.g. praise/stroking/etc. is a much more important positive reinforcement signal than food. I did not look for the study, I learned about it in a lecture in 2019.

Personally, I was allowed to get to know dogs, which praise or “crawl” were cordially “indifferent”, food, however, was THE motivation reason. Other dogs, well, they were just “problematic” individual cases, could even react very “skeptically” to the offer of food, to put it mildly, which clearly shows that food (treats) does not have to be a miracle cure.

Likewise, today we have systems of wordless dog training, purely through body language.

We can not try to enforce the one, valid system with “all force”, there are now several possibilities and approaches and it is called to find out suitable for the individual.

Mind you, dog trainers, the use of food already very targeted and skillfully apply and this usually does not degenerate into a permanent food supply via treats. This is about training, conditioning, distraction, etc.

“Correct” training or practicing, requires attention and this succeeds only concentrated over a certain, relatively short period of time optimally. What you often see in reality, however, is a rather permanent “giving of food” during every walk, which would be too much of a good thing for me personally and I even consider it counterproductive.

This may be the reason for the dissenting voices, not against positive reinforcement with treats per se, nor against the quantity, possibly in targeted use, but against the continuous and regular administration of food until it possibly degenerates into uninteresting habituation. I would agree with this criticism throughout and I think that the basic misunderstanding could be buried here.

Because if I was allowed to learn something from lecturers and dog professionals, about past times where aversive methods were “natural” and “usual” in various areas, then it was that even negative pain stimuli lose their effect at some point (but with consistently negative consequences, so please leave it!). It will be no different with food, I would think. To be able to have effective and lasting success with food (treats), I will also have to use this means very specifically, so as not to arrive at an inflationary plateau at some point.

What disturbs me personally however very much is that the use of fodder, as reward by treats, is represented generally as exclusively positive, animal protection-fairly and at all as only correct and “good” method. I see this in this generalization simply as wrong, because I was allowed to experience dogs that had shown very pronounced stress signals up to very clear appeasement signals when food was used for reinforcement. Food can be a “FORCIBLE” power in the hand of the dog owner and this can also degenerate into violence in dealing with the dog. Violence is not always only physical, psychological violence is definitely not to be underestimated. But here again: can be, but does not have to be. It simply depends on the individual!

So to generalize that behavior control by food (treats) is generally only positive and “good”, I find quite narrow-minded and unworldly, especially in the professional field and I’m not talking about the dog picking up a treat for fun, but from the targeted use. Especially with animals we have to do here with even more pronounced, biological basic needs and this can lead to tremendous stress to the point of agony. Here we definitely have to be careful! (what here however everything naturally does not mean to fall back on physical force, it concerns here consideration of the psychological load!)

Aversive methods:

I just thought of another, possibly more philosophical, differentiation to aversive learning methods. Whereby it concerns me here above all around the demarcation of various conceptualizations.

First of all, they have nothing to do with the training of animals, but I would like to look at it in the context of “learning”. So to all not dog professionals who read this text here: Please do not use violence, fright or similar when you train your dogs or work with them. This leads to nothing, builds only frustration and avoidance behavior and will cause you eventually possibly big problems! Please pay attention to this very conscientiously and take time for your dog. This is purely a differentiated approach to bring the sometimes emotionally escalating and especially escalating excesses in discussions back to an objective level.

Areas such as police and military I exclude now once, where exactly must be differentiated. There is not one level of (physical or psychological) violence, it is, just like the concept of dominance, in interaction or is to be seen in relation to the individual. Of course, there are clear boundaries, so it is not easy to put this issue into words correctly. And again for clarification: There is no necessity for the “basic training” to work with aversive means, but in the operational areas one will probably have to prepare for extreme situations!

I am interested in another consideration, which perhaps makes a differentiation possible.

Originally a sign in the Wolf Science Center in Ernstbrunn brought me to these thoughts:

“Protective measures against attacks by wolves on farm animals”.

“Electric fence: causes a very painful but not life-threatening electric shock when touched. Farm animals are kept inside the fence, wolves and also dogs are repelled. Lesson learned: “Sheep hurt a lot” “

We must be clear about one thing. Pain (or else “fright” for example) can have a great learning effect. But where is the essential demarcation from violence?

I see this demarcation in the kind and duration of negatively acting influences.

If mother or father has admonished the child for the hundredth time not to reach onto the hot stove top because it hurts a lot, some children will probably still have this painful experience. And they will learn from it without suffering a lifelong trauma.

But it was then a “voluntary” or “clumsy” action of the child, violence (as it unfortunately happens) would be to punish the child with the hot stove plate. Should therefore be unthinkable.

So, the dog that has its experience at the pasture fence does not have an aggressor or bully that inflicts pain on it at the push of a button and it cannot escape it willingly. This is an essential difference.

If I am standing in a traffic jam, lost in thought, and behind me an emergency vehicle turns up its siren, it will probably frighten me. It will alert me and wake me up. That’s what it’s there for. A healthy person should not suffer a lifelong trauma here. To violence would lead permanently fed noise, which one cannot escape.

Bringing about a “fright situation” is therefore not necessarily immediately equated with violence. Here I may also refer to sleep researchers who clearly describe the negative, physiological effects of alarm clocks, do we change that or have we “accepted” it? So basically negative, but “tragic”? Or perhaps to be considered individually again?

So, a clear distinction must be made between (recurrent) actions as part of training methods and contextual actions. And this is extremely important to me here.

Because I could already observe how people did not dare to react properly when it came to problematic situations with their dogs. Because “non-violence” is simply wrongly communicated and lies at times almost like a sword of Damocles over the new dog world. Of course you have to pull your dog out of a dangerous situation sometimes harshly on the leash to avoid worse. This does not mean that you strangle or constrict your dog if you tug on the leash. You don’t want to teach your dog anything and you do this regularly. And of course a loud scream can also be appropriate to avert danger. This has nothing to do with violence and certainly nothing to do with training methods. It is about acting in a time limited frame, there is no need to start rummaging out treats. But obviously it needs a proper education and exact mediation to understand the difference between non-violent education and acting in certain situations. That might have been lost quite a bit.

Possibly there is already a certain fear or shame here to stand there as a violence glorifying person. Mainly because people like to presume a momentary situation on a general behavior. Funnily enough, the learned “Observe <> Interpret” is then forgotten again and hastily interpreted and generalized come hell or high water. I was also allowed to observe this and fortunately very soon hold up the mirror to those.

What we do not want for dog training, because it would be counterproductive, especially in the long run would have no (positive) effect, has nothing to do with spontaneous actions and reactions in everyday dog life.

I like to “dissect” these things because it seems important to me to communicate as error-free as possible in order to be able to make this emotional topic about the dog a little more factual, especially in the area where experienced people with different views exchange ideas.

Because it must not be that professionals get into each other’s hair, while out there in the daily events real crap happens. It must also not be that everything is talked bad when people take on “problem dogs” and pretty much every method (which are definitely non aversive) is criticized and no matter what, it’s just “the poor dog” and forget that a completely different person, created this problem. It is thrown around with terms such as “learned helplessness” without people obviously even close to this term even understand what this actually (dramatically) Means. So please follow the link to “Experiment on learned helplessness in dogs” on Wikipedia, read, understand and not parrot anything. I condemn this experimental design by the way, my grandmother could have told me the result without such an “experiment”. Senseless paternalism and know-it-alls, while the really drastically moronic videos (e.g. recall training with electric shock collar) are allowed to exist soulfully on YouTube.

I am not completely satisfied with my text here myself, because I ask myself whether what I try to convey also comes across that way. My intention is to bring dog professionals whether from practice and / or research and teaching, as well as the people from other animal professions again increasingly on a common level, because if mommy and daddy argue, then the children will go their own way 😉 Basically, the opinions do not differ in so serious points, it’s just about subtleties and the freedom to choose from what is possible instead of just trying to give a direction.

This text can only “work” if the readers are willing to think outside the box and to consider that we have to deal with many different dogs and owners in our society. Different breeds as well as dogs from animal shelters, abused dogs as well as “perfectly” socialized dogs with fantastic, stress-free nursery.