What’s in a name? Quite a bit, actually, since most of us have both mental pictures and feelings associated with words. For example, if I mention a dog named Baron, what picture comes to mind? Now picture another dog, Honey. I bet you imagined two very different dogs. (This is a good thing to keep in mind when naming a new dog. Names come with baggage.)
This is why it bothers me when people use the words “treat” and “reward” interchangeably when talking about reinforcing a dog’s behavior in training. For instance, “When the dog sits, give him a treat” versus “Reward the dog for coming when called”.
In fact, neither of these words is quite accurate in a training scenario. The word “reinforcement” best suits the action and intention of acknowledging a dog’s correct response in an attempt to increase the likelihood of that behavior.
So let’s look at the dictionary definitions of these words:
- A treat is used as a special occasion: “Entertainment, food, drink, etc., given by way of compliment or as an expression of friendly regard.”
- A reward is a prize or compensation of sorts: “Something given or received in return or recompense for service, merit, hardship, etc.”
- A reinforcement enhances strength, whether applied to behavior or architecture: “Something that reinforces, bolsters, or increases strength.”
You may think this is just semantics, but I believe the words we choose most definitely affect our emotional states and perspectives. The word you conjure in your mind when training and delivering reinforcement to your dog is likely to influence whether you feel you are:
“Spoiling” your dog with treats and perhaps losing his respect
Awarding your dog a special honor simply for expected polite behavior or
Effectively strengthening your dog’s correct response to your request to assure it happens more and more frequently, squeezing out the likelihood of unwanted behavior in the process
See what I mean? How you view offering your dog a food morsel, belly rub, or favorite toy in exchange for what you deem “good” behavior totally impacts your interpretation of what dog training is all about, as well as how you view your relationship with your dog. So please choose your words wisely and by all means think about what your intention is when you offer your dog anything pleasant in response to good behavior.
Reinforcement for good behavior in dog training is sometimes called “currency.” This term works for some people because it implies that the dog is doing a job and earning compensation, just like we do when we go to work.
We aren’t bribed to do our jobs, and our dogs shouldn’t be bribed into good behavior. Bribing breaks down the relationship and doesn’t work well in the long run. It certainly doesn’t create an association between our cue and the desired behavior.
On the other hand, most of us aren’t physically forced to do our jobs against our will, and dogs shouldn’t be forced to do things either, especially when it’s so easy to teach them to want to do what we’d like them to do in friendly and fun ways.
When I’m training my own dogs, whether in a structured session or a real-life scenario, I understand that most of the time I am simply reinforcing their behavior when I feed or play with them for doing my bidding.
Other times their behavior is so impressive that I instead choose to give them a big reward (which is still reinforcement), especially when they are being perfect canine citizens under difficult circumstances. I have no problem bestowing upon them the equivalent of the canine Olympic Gold Medal when their performance is above and beyond!
I give my dogs treats occasionally, too. Big belly rubs, a special one-on-one outing with me, or juicy marrow bones just because I love them and they are awesome dogs. No strings attached, because, after all, that is what a treat is, a loving expression of friendly regard.
Kelly Gorman Dunbar is Director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior, where she recruits and trains the instructors for the Dunbar family business, SIRIUS® Puppy & Dog Training. She is the creator of the SIRIUS Sniffers scent-detection program, and is in the process of bringing the French sport of cavage (truffle hunting) to the US. Kelly is also Founder and President of Open Paw and consults on various matters.