Many basic dog training classes encourage the use of treats in training.
In some cases the trainer will let you carry on using treats with your own dog, in others treats are forbidden.
In a few cases you will even be told that training treats are a very bad thing.
Traditional dog training
I grew up with gundogs, my mother was a keen obedience trainer though her dogs were not worked in the shooting field.
My mother did not believe in treats at all, she believed that dogs should work for praise alone.
Her dogs were very much loved, and immaculately behaved.
I carried on training my own dogs to work for ‘praise alone’ for many years.
And in fact did not start using treats until the early ‘noughties’, when I first became interested in clicker training.
Pet dog training methods are increasingly being based on the rules of behavioural science and traditional training methods are steadily being replaced.
Using treats for labrador training is nowadays often a contentious issue in gundog circles. Many traditional gundog trainers abhor the use of treats and consider them both pointless, and ineffective.
Having used both the ‘treats are forbidden’ approach, and the ‘training with treats’ approach I find it interesting to compare the difference.
There are a number of myths and areas of confusion on both sides
Myth: Training treats do not work
If a trainer tells you in broad terms that training with treats/without any force (sometimes referred to as ‘cookie training’) does not work, then in broad terms, he or she is wrong.
There is even a Field Trial Champion now who was trained using only force-free methods.
This said though, there may be some logical reasoning behind your trainer’s disbelief depending on his ‘field of interest’.
This is because in some disciplines it takes so long to reach a high standard, and is so complicated to set up the training requirements to achieve this standard without force, that very few serious trainers are interested in doing so.
This doesn’t mean it doesn’t work though, it just means that it might require far greater effort and time to do so.
Fact: Training with treats alone can be challenging in some disciplines
Spaniel gundog training is one clear example.
A spaniel has to be taught to sit to flushing game. This means that when a rabbit bolts or a pheasant flies up out of a bush in front of his nose, instead of following all his instincts and charging after it, the dog must sit back on his haunches and watch it fly or run away.
This requires an enormous amount of self control as you can imagine, and the flushing animal is far more attractive than any reward you can dream up.
Training with rewards alone means that initially at least, the reward you offer the dog for obedience must be greater than the perceived reward for doing what you do not want him to.
Achieving this requires the setting up of artificially contrived situations so that the dog simply cannot reward himself by indulging in unwanted behaviours.
This is sometimes difficult to arrange in the presence of unpredictable wild animals.
Myth: Training with force does not work
This is a commonly used argument against forceful training, which simply reinforces the belief of those indulging in forceful training, that ‘cookie trainers’ talk rubbish.
Of course training with force does work, many dogs are trained successfully to very high levels using varying degrees of force/compulsion, and without ever receiving a treat in their lives.
Claiming that aversives do not work is so easily disproved that it is pointless. But just because they work, doesn’t mean that we should necessarily be using these methods on our Labradors.
Instead we should be promoting the many advantages of training with rewards.
Myth: If a trainer does not believe in treats, he is a bad trainer
Some very traditional trainers, especially gundog trainers, are somewhat closed to the idea of using treats, or heaven forbid, reward markers such as clickers.
However, these trainers remain unconvinced for a reason.
What they are already doing works well, and no-one has yet shown them a fun and effective alternative.
In addition their own techniques are likely to work more rapidly than any alternative, particularly at advanced levels.
These trainers are not normally bad people.
They have a different agenda from the average dog owner, they are likely to be working to a timetable and training a large number of dogs each year. Their reputation is likely to depend on their success in competitive events. They have a great deal to lose by trying techniques that have not been proven in their discipline.
If treated with respect most of these trainers are decent folk that are willing to learn techniques that are demonstrably useful to them, just like the rest of us. And we can learn a huge amount from them
Fact: Traditional trainers often have valuable skills and knowledge to offer
Instead of scorning traditional trainers it is well worth getting to know them. Many have a wealth of knowledge and skill, much of which can be adapted to more modern techniques at home.
Obviously trainers that are downright abusive needs to be avoided, and sadly there are still a few of these.
Read our article on finding a good trainer, to find out how to avoid abusive trainers.
Myth: Dogs will work for love alone
Sadly, this is not generally true. Some dogs will work quite hard for ‘approval’ but this is likely to be partly because ‘approval’ signals that there will be no punishment this time. Your approval becomes in effect a ‘no punishment’ marker.
Reliance on obedience through affection is a risky strategy once you start taking a dog outdoors into more challenging environments, and those that achieve high levels of obedience in challenging circumstances without the use of food, often use relatively high levels of punishment in order to achieve their goals.
Myth: Some dogs won’t work for food
Dogs that have never been trained with food will often ignore it in training to begin with but this can be changed.
Our sister site, The Happy Puppy Site, has a nice clear article on what to do when food doesn’t work.
In addition to this, food isn’t the only way to reward a dog. There are other alternative you can use for dogs more motivated by other things, like games or toys.
Fact: All animals learn to change their behaviour in response to reward or punishment
We now know so very much about the mechanisms of how animals learn that it is impossible to ignore.
We know for a fact that behaviour is influenced powerfully by its immediate consequences and little if at all by delayed consequences.
This is not just my opinion, it has been proven over and over again in laboratories and in the field, all over the world.
Consequences can be either good or bad and most modern trainers prefer to apply largely good consequences, whilst reserving bad consequences for occasional corrections.
There will always be those at either end of the spectrum that favour an all or nothing approach, avoiding aversives completely or scorning the use of treats under any circumstances.
Fact: Dogs learn faster when they are confident and happy
Whilst using unpleasant consequences can alter a dog’s behaviour effectively, there are benefits to more positive training techniques.
Dogs that are not overly corrected are likely to feel confident and ‘upbeat’. This can improve their ability to learn new skills, and make them more positive about their communications with you.
Fact: For all animals, the best rewards are primary reinforcers
Effective rewards are those which serve a primary need such as ‘hunger’ ‘sex’ or ‘thirst’.
More and more of us these days try to train predominantly with rewards, and research shows that the most effect rewards are food and being permitted to indulge in highly instinctive hunting behaviours such as chasing.
For most dogs, a pat or a word of praise is not as highly rewarding as food, or as the opportunity to indulge in addictive or rewarding behaviours (such as chasing, retrieving etc). And almost all trainers using praise alone as a reward will need to balance that with regular punishments when the dog makes a mistake.
Fact: Using food treats reduces the need for punishment
If you want to train with a minimum of force this is an admirable aim. If you want to use treats then you will find them very important in assisting you in avoiding aversives.
Together with breaking training down into small stages, sensible use of food is one of the most important keys to aversive free training.
Myth: Cookie trainers just bribe their dogs
This is not true.
Training with treats does not involve bribes unless a dog is being deliberately ‘lured’ into a position, usually to initiate a new behaviour.
Myth: Cookie trainers carry food everywhere!
Not necessarily. I never take treats on to a shoot for example. The best reward in the world for my gundogs is a retrieve.
I use a ‘bumbag’ or a deep pocket, and often treat with kibble or cubes of bread and cheese, which is not messy or too smelly.
Treats can be phased out over time to an occasional bonus, but it is unwise to attempt to reduce rewards to nothing. Research has shown that behaviours that are never rewarded will eventually die out.
So don’t be mean, once in a while when your well-behaved dog comes back smartly to your whistle, surprise him with a tasty treat, your sudden generosity will deepen and reinforce his good behaviour far more effectively than a pat or a kind word.
The benefits of training with treats
Whilst I believe it is important to acknowledge the truth about forceful training, ie that it can and does achieve the results required by the trainer, I think it is equally important to promote the undeniable benefits of training with valuable rewards, especially food.
Dogs trained predominantly using training treats are likely to be very confident and upbeat. Because treat-based training tends to avoid aversives, these dogs have no reason to fear their handler.
This results in a lovely bond between dog and handler that can be clearly observed.
Dogs that are overly punished may become ‘cowed’, but in many cases they simply become ‘hardened’ to punishment and this can result in an escalating spiral of increasingly harsh corrections.
Perhaps the very best reason for using treats in training is that it is fun. Fun for you, and fun for the dog. It isn’t cheating, it isn’t bribing, and it doesn’t mean your dog does not respect or admire you.
If you want to use training treats, go for it.
If you can’t find a good training class that lets you use treats, go to a traditional class and take from it what you need. There are lots of ways to learn, pick the one you feel comfortable with, and most importantly: enjoy yourself.
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This article was repubished with updated information on 12th February 2015.