There are some things that are made so much easier when we use treats, like toilet training, or recall training, teaching commands and puppy socialisation. We can still do these things without treats but they certainly do make the process a lot easier and quicker. I use loads of treats when I am puppy training, so much that I cut back on the dog’s daily food so it doesn’t end up gaining too much weight. Puppy training without treats would be like trying to train a dog without using a lead and collar, I am all for treats in the right circumstances.
However, there are times when treats are simply not appropriate and can actually cause more harm than good. I am talking about when a dog is aggressive, misbehaving, anxious, fearful, and nervous or generally displaying unwanted behaviour.
Food is a reward, as it touch, talk and eye contact. These rewards should only be given when the dog is in the right mindset. Sadly many people use food as a “distraction” when a dog is displaying any of the behaviours mentioned above. All this does is reward the unwanted behaviour. Aggressive dogs, dogs that are behaving aggressively or even thinking aggressively, should not be given food, that is the last thing they should be given. It is counter productive. Dogs that are displaying aggressive behaviour may not even take the treat because they are so stressed but if they do divert their attention for a split second to eat the food they will still have the aggressive mindset and the heart rate will still be increased, the body will still be tense, the adrenaline will still be pumping around the body. So when the owner feeds at this moment the dog is getting rewarded for being aggressive.
Many of my clients have already tried to deal with their aggressive dogs using this “positive reinforcement” method. In my view it should be called negative reinforcement, it is reinforcing a negative behaviour and the dog only gets worse. Not only is it being rewarded for bad behaviour, it sees the owner as weak for not dealing with the threat that makes the dog anxious. What happens when the treats stop coming? The dog turns its attention back to what it was doing before. This has a really damaging effect on the relationship between the dog and the owner, the dog will believe the owner is weak and lacking in confidence, which will force it to become even more aggressive and defensive, having to defend itself AND its owner. This is a very common background to many of the dogs that I see. We shouldn’t use food on a dog when its mind is not relaxed. It makes the problem worse, not better.
If your dog has aggression or is misbehaving, think carefully about reaching for the bag of treats, even the rustling of the plastic serves as a reward, ask yourself, what is my dog thinking, what attitude has it got, do I want to reward my dog if it is feeling scared, anxious or aggressive? Do I want to reward my dog if it wants to attack another dog?
When I was training one of my dogs years ago I learned this lesson the hard way, with play biting. I was told I needed to “redirect” my dog away with a toy. When he tried to bite me I gave him a toy to chew instead of my arm. I was rewarding him for biting me. It is not a redirection, it is a reward. I believe we should praise and reward dogs all day long for the good behaviours, but we should not be rewarding any negative behaviour, especially aggression. We can help aggressive dogs become more balanced without food and with good leadership. Leadership is much more powerful than food. It creates a much healthier relationship between dog and owner and is based on trust and respect.
Dogs need to feel safe and secure in order to overcome their fears. As much as they love getting treats the dogs don’t see the owner as being capable at dealing with their environment, they view them as the giver of the treats and nothing more. Taking the treats away and becoming competent at walking a dog is hugely empowering and so much more effective at tackling aggression.