«Your dog is working for treats, not for you.» I can’t tell how many times I’ve heard that phrase. This is arguably one of the most common sentences from so-called traditional trainers. Mostly trainers that believe in dominating and correcting* their dogs. What I find fascinating is that this is actually used as an argument.
Firstly, I will write about the most basic survival foundation: egoism. All living beings are egoistic. All. Now matter how you would like to twist it, we are all self-centered, egoistic creatures. And evolution has made it so. We must be to survive, both as individuals, but also as a species. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t be here.
Let me explain. We do whatever is beneficial for us. Like eating when we are hungry, sleeping when we are tired, buying things we want and so on. This is satisfying for us, and because we gain something from it (stop being hungry – and not die from starvation, stop being tired – you will actually die without sleep (link), finally geting the thing we want – makes us happy) we continue to do the very same things. If we won’t gain anything from our actions, the actions disappear (e.g. stay awake when we are tired is not beneficial because we’re not getting more awake – we might get overtired, but sooner or later we will fall asleep).
«But I’m not all egoistic!», you might have said by now. «I am helping animals/other people with no reward.» Ask yourself: what happens when you help others? You feel good about it. You have gained a good feeling. A good conscience. No matter what you do, you gain something from it, and if you don’t gain anything, you stop doing it. Sometimes on the first try, and sometimes it takes several tries, but the action will still eventually die out. Don’t feel bad about being egoistic, though. As written in a dog training book I own: Being happy when helping or pleasing others is only showing that you are a sympathetic person!
Egoism in dog training
The very same basics is applying when we train our dogs. No dog has ever worked for anyone other than himself. He is working to gain something. With me the dogs are gaining treats, toys, play, attention or whatever it is they want, either I’m aware of it or not. When they’re doing things I’m not asking for, I withhold the reward. And now, here’s the thing: with traditional trainers that doesn’t use treats or play, but insists that the dog is working for them – the dog is working to gain relief from the discomfort from whatever is used when the dog is «disobedient». Let’s say a leash jerk. Jerking on the leash is not something a dog enjoy, therefore he will work to avoid the jerking. He is not working for the human, but for himself because this is beneficial for him.
«You» vs. treats
Knowing this, which is actually very obvious once thought of, I am proud to say that my dog is working for treats. It’s very rewarding for me too, because I get happy by seeing my dogs happy. It is FUN for the dog to work for a positive reward such as treats or toys. It makes the action to gain the reward fun itself.
As I am a crossover-trainer, I am getting hugely rewarded by this very good feeling inside me when I see my dogs happy. I used to jerk on the leash and positively punish** my whippet. Not only did it give me a bad feeling (because I knew deep inside that this was wrong – I just didn’t know how to do it differently), but I didn’t have a relaxed and happy dog. Surely I used treats, but treats always comes in second of punishment. I will close up this blog post by quoting (as best as I can) my instructor at my clicker trainer education, Aase Ramsrud:
Let’s say you are a teenager living with your parents, and one of the house rules is that you must be home by 11 p.m. You get threatened with beating if you’re late. You come home late one night, and you’re actually beaten up badly. By coming early you’ll get rewarded with $100. You will of course be happy about the money, but what you’re really coming home early for is to avoid being beaten up.
*correcting in this post refers to physically correct the dogs by jerking the leash, shocking the dogs etc., and also by threatening the dogs to do as they are commanded
** positive punishment: inflicting pain or discomfort