There are two schools of dog obedience training – aversive dog training (traditional methods) and reward dog training.
In reward dog training, food is sometimes used as a motivator for work and success. However, some people view the use of food rewards as dog bribery.
Is food training bribery?
More importantly, is food training effective? Is it a good way to stop bad dog behaviors, and to build a strong bond with our dog?
Is Using Food Dog Bribery?
The Free Dictionary defines bribery as “the practice of offering something (usually money) in order to gain an illicit advantage”. This is in contrast to reward which is defined as “something given in return for a service”.
Reward is the broader definition, and bribery is perhaps a specialized instance of reward, where the “service” returned is illegal or illicit. Based on these definitions, it seems that bribery is not quite the appropriate term to use for food motivated dog training. Last time I checked, Sit, Down, or even Play Dead are not against the law. Even the Hump command is strictly legal.
In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary bribe is defined as “something that serves to induce or influence”. This is a more general definition, that comes much closer to the meaning of reward. However, I would argue that all of dog training is about applying a stimulus in order to induce or influence the dog to stop bad behaviors, and repeat good behaviors.
Therefore, all dog training would be classified as bribery under this more broad description.
Whichever definition we choose to use, it is clear that bribery has many negative connotations, whereas reward is more neutral or positive.
Therefore, is using food in dog training something negative?
There are three main reasons why some dog owners may consider food training to be bribery -
Food Dog Training Myth 1
The dog is doing it for the food and not for me.
Popular movies and television shows such as Lassie, portray good dogs as living only to please and protect us, their masters. Good dogs know that there is little else to life aside from pleasing humans, and doing exactly what we tell them to do. The only exceptions, are those instances whereby they cleverly thwart the villains on their own, in anticipation of their master’s needs.
Not too surprisingly, real-world dogs are very different from their media counterparts.
In the real world, dogs are not slaves. They have their own needs, that are often different from our own. They like rolling in skunk, chewing on our designer shoes, and eating their own poop.
Note though that just because a dog has needs, does not mean that he has no loyalty toward us. Depending on breed, many dogs are very loyal to their pack or family. They will often protect family members with their lives, and do all that they can to ensure pack success.
Dogs, however, think and communicate differently than we do. Protecting the family and ensuring pack success, may not always mean the same things to them, as it does to us.
Loyalty is about a strong attachment or bond, and NOT about blindly following commands without thinking for ourselves.
Working for food is NOT some sort of canine betrayal.
It is simply an efficient way to facilitate dog training, and to build a strong relationship. Different dogs have different temperaments, so to train each of them effectively, we must identify which rewards work best. Food rewards work for some dogs, while others may prefer toys, freedom to explore, dog play, praise, or visiting with dog friends.
Dogs that are highly motivated by praise, and human interaction, are probably closest to the Lassie ideal. Herding dogs fit well into this category because they have been bred to work closely with us. Some example herding dogs include Collies (Lassie), Border Collies, and Shetland Sheepdogs.
These dogs may be people motivated, but they also have personal goals and needs. For example, herding dogs are bred to work, and they need to engage in interesting joint activity with their human owners.
Well-trained herding dogs can achieve much together with their human counterparts. However, if left alone at home, unchallenged, and untrained, these same dogs will quickly become bored and frustrated. They will escape, chew up our belongings, or redesign our house and yard.
In other words, both human motivated dogs, and food motivated dogs are working for a reward or bribe. In one case the bribe is human attention and affection, in the other the bribe is food.
This has nothing to do with long-term love, or long-term loyalty; just shorter term motivators for a job well done.
Food Dog Training Myth 2
The dog becomes unreliable and over-dependent on food rewards.
Ok, so now we know that real-world dogs operate based on their own needs, and are not unthinking, human slaves. The question then becomes:
Is it better to only motivate our dog through non-food rewards?
Obviously we do not want to be fumbling with food when our dog is running into traffic, or preparing to jump into a filthy lake.
A dog that is trained purely based on human interaction and praise, but not on food, will presumably be more reliable. We always have the ability to give praise and affection, whereas we may not always have food with us. In a perfect world, it will be much easier on us if our dogs were highly people-motivated. However, most dogs are less motivated by praise, and a lot more motivated by food.
In these cases, food will greatly enhance and expedite the dog learning process.
Once our dog has learned a particular command through repetition, we can slowly phase out the food rewards and only treat him intermittently.
Some trainers claim that as soon as we reduce the amount of food rewards, a dog will respond more slowly to commands, or just ignore them altogether.
This is NOT true.
Scientific studies on animal behavior and dog behavior show that dogs will continue to respond, even when we cut back to intermittent rewards. This was explained in detail by Ferster and Skinner in their book Schedules of Reinforcement. However, we should slowly phase out food rewards, only after our dog has properly learned the command or behavior. Remember to use a variable schedule of rewards, rather than a fixed schedule.
Instead of using rewards (food or otherwise) to motivate our dog to work, we can also use an aversive stimulus.
With reward dog training we give our dog a reward when he does something right, and take away a reward when he does something wrong. With aversive dog training we apply something unpleasant/aversive when our dog does something wrong, and stop the aversive stimulus as soon as he does something right.
There are a variety of aversive methods, but the most common are leash corrections and muzzle slaps. A leash correction requires a collar and leash, while the muzzle slap can be executed with our own hands.
The advantage of these methods is that they can be applied on our dog wherever we are, without having to carry around food or other rewards. Aversive methods are frequently based on pain and fear, which not surprisingly, turn out to be strong short-term motivators. As a result, our dog may initially become more reliable at following commands. However, responsiveness to commands usually degrades over time, as our dog gets habituated to the pain.
Aversive methods are very risky, and may end up damaging our dog physically and mentally, as well as cause dog behavior issues such as aggression. These techniques may also weaken the relationship with our dog, and erode his trust in us.
As a result, most aversive techniques should only be used as a last resort, and only under the direction of a professional trainer.
It is always strange to me that opponents of reward training would talk endlessly about how giving food to dogs is inappropriate, but applying pain or some other negative stimulus is somehow considered to be the ‘right‘ thing to do.
In fact, reward training is very effective, and carries a lot less risk than aversive training.
Food Dog Training Myth 3
The dog becomes obese and unhealthy.
Finally, some people worry that their dogs may become obese or unhealthy if they keep receiving “food bribes” throughout the day.
This is easily managed by using our dog’s daily food rations as his work reward, rather than presenting it to him in a silver bowl. In this way, he will not be eating more than he did before. If there is food left over, we can stuff it in interactive food toys and let him work for that as well.
In the wild, wolves and wild dogs spend most of their time working for food. A domestic dog that also has to work for his food, will be exercising his body and mind in a positive way, and will be less likely to get into mischief.
If I use dog treats during training, then I make sure to reduce my dog’s kibble intake accordingly. I only use healthy dog treats that do not contain fillers and unnecessary additives. Do not give a dog too many treats, and always feed him a balanced meal.
To Bribe or Not to Bribe?
Food is a strong motivator for shaping dog behavior, and it makes sense to use all the tools at our disposal. There are truly no real downsides to using food, and very many upsides.
We must feed our dog anyway, on a daily basis, so just make him work for the food rather than giving it to him for free.
Should food be used in dog training? Absolutely.
Food makes learning easier, quicker, and a lot more fun. Food will also help to create a stronger bond with our dog, that is based on mutual trust and respect.
Is using food bribery?
If by bribery we mean something bad or wrong, then absolutely not. If by bribery, we mean “reward”, then we should just use the word reward.