To Treat, or Not to Treat?

MYTH BUSTING MONDAY & TRAINING TIP TUESDAY (because it's 11PM, so close enough)


Over the past few decades, applied behavior analysts have been studying, researching, and publishing their findings on the use of food as a reinforcement for training animals. Many debate the logistics of using food, often speaking out against it. This is unfortunately due to their lack of understanding in how the chemical reactions occur in the brain when specific food rewards are paired with learning new behaviors. The common myth is that you will always need food or treats forever when that is simply not the case. Why? Three words.


Variable rate reinforcement. Simply put, teaching the animal to work for the possibility of a reward. Professional trainers know how and when to apply a variable rate of reinforcement as the animal progresses at their own pace. When trainers place their ego above their animal's cognitive capabilities, they do more than just a disservice to the animals they work with, but also fail them by ignoring the signs all animals give when they try to say, "I'm just not ready yet."


By using food rewards appropriately, we are able to lay down a solid foundation of both learning and ENTHUSIASM for learning. We also help the animal avoid the use of "learned helplessness" which leads to the animal cognitively shutting down. When displayed with dogs, for example, what was once an outgoing and exuberant pup is now laying out flat as a pancake and TA-DA! the miracle has happened and the owner believes their dog has been transformed.


Sadly, this is not the case, though it is misconstrued by many to be a success. There is such a thing as "knowing just enough to be dangerous" and in the dog world, which is a completely unregulated industry, people often mistaken what they don't understand. Subsequently, the dog is now too overwhelmed, thus triggering his/her amygdala and with the indecisiveness of "fight or flight," they opt for the compromise that occurs as "learned helplessness."


To avoid these occurrences, food rewards are proven successful for the simple fact that it ties directly into the proper chemical output that rewards the dog's brain. In the ABC's of applied behavior (Antecedent/cue, Behavior/response, Consequence/reward or punishment) you have many options on how to reinforce or reduce (punish) a behavior. Beyond the four quadrants of operant conditioning, it is the trainer's responsibility to recognize when a dog has had enough and finally shuts down. This is why it is so imperative to keep training sessions short and ending a high note. Consider the last page of your favorite book and the feeling you had when you closed it for the final time, wishing the story would continue. This is the same response professional trainers strive for in every session, so that when they return to start again, the dog is already eager and excited to see where the story goes next.


The idea that food rewards should not be used is not only obsolete, but dangerous when withheld by choice for other, more invasive methods. While they seem to be the quick fix now, the dog has yet to truly learn anything and will quickly revert back to their original behavior - or worse, escalate into a ticking time bomb. Click here for more information on the LIMA principles of training.


Think about it; you go to work, do your job, and get paid. When we work with animals, we ask them to work by "stop being an animal and do your job." Would you work without being paid, or at least the possibility of a bonus? I certainly wouldn't, and neither would you. It's time to catch up with science because, when you know better, you do better. Do better. ~ Mallory Robinson Certified Force Free Trainer

The Texas Shock Free Coalition IAABC Shelter Behavior Affiliate ASPCA Anti-Cruelty Behavior Responder

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