• Melissa Henchen

Trainer Perspective: Paying Your Dog

As a force-free trainer, I get a lot of questions from clients about treats when they start class; why do we use treats, isn't that considered bribery, what constitutes a high-value treat, and so on. While I'll probably hit on those questions in a later blog post, today I'd like to talk about the question I always get when clients finish class: "When can I stop using treats?"

The short answer? Not now. Probably not this year. Probably not even next year. The long answer? Let's dig into that.

When can your boss stop paying you to do your job?

People tend to think of dogs like kids a lot, which has its pros and cons. In this situation, it's a bit of a con, because even though training a dog and raising a young child have a similar function of teaching them how to behave in society, your dog never develops the moral imperative to perform these behaviors as a child eventually does. Your dog never starts thinking about their behavior in terms of things they should do or things that are right; they just do what they find rewarding.

A lot of behaviors dogs do naturally and find rewarding are behaviors we humans don't like — digging, counter-surfing, pulling on the leash, jumping up on people, etc. Similarly, a full-time job tends to be at-odds with a lot of things people enjoy doing — sleeping in, having a relaxing breakfast, watching TV, you get the picture. Imagine if you got hired at your current job, and as soon as you were done training your boss said, "Okay, now that you know how to do the job, we're not going to pay you any more." What would be your motivation to keep working?

It's not a perfect analogy, because we do tend to give fewer treats the better a dog gets at something, and because there's a moral imperative attached to work in America. However, if you think about in terms of paying your dog to do a job rather than "spoiling" them for doing something you feel they should do automatically, it helps you set more realistic expectations and decreases frustration.

When do you want your dog's behavior to stop improving?

The strangest thing about the "when can I stop using treats?" question is that it never comes from people with perfectly-behaved dogs. Granted, I don't know any perfectly-behaved dogs, including my own, but the people asking have usually just finished puppy class, or just finished their first basic obedience class. Their dogs have been practicing the building blocks of good behavior for a little more than a month, and people want to know when they can stop paying for these newly-learned things. Do you want your dog's behavior to stop improving at that point? Probably not. Now, let's say your dog is really nailing their daily routine; they ride nicely in the car to daycare, they walk in calmly, they walk out calmly, they sit politely for their dinner at home. At that point, it might be fair to ask, "Can I stop using treats in these scenarios?" Sure, but that doesn't mean it applies to things outside of that routine. If your dog walks sweetly by your side without treats on your daily jaunt around the block, that doesn't mean you can (or should) expect the same on their first trip to Letchworth, where there are 300 people and dogs and the smells of all God's creatures great and small. If your dog greets you politely with all four feet on the ground when you come home, it doesn't mean you can (or should) expect the same when your boisterous brother and his four kids come to visit.

Ultimately, you know your dog and you know your life. Maybe you're reading this and saying to yourself, "It's just not realistic to think I'm going to have treats on me at all times." It's not realistic for most of us, but that means we have to adjust our expectations accordingly, and it also means we need to prioritize and manage. What are the behaviors you really wish you could change, and when do they typically occur? How can you avoid the situation or environment where that behavior arises unless you have treats with you? Are there ways you can make treats more accessible and convenient for you, so you're more likely to use them? When it comes to treats, these are the questions we should be asking.

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