ClickerSolutions Training Articles

Why Food Treats?

> The idea of treats was equivalent to bribery which was considered a bad thing. The c/t people believe that dogs don't have that kind of moral sense. It will remain for me to see how well my new dog will do after I begin to "fade" the rewards (FADE = slowly phase out giving treats, always use verbal praise)

I just wanted to elaborate on the science behind this.

A behavior occurs because it was reinforced, positively or negatively, no matter what style of training you use. By definition, behaviors that increase were reinforced.

Now, if a behavior -- even a well-conditioned behavior -- is no longer reinforced (positively or negatively), it will extinct, or disappear.

For example, say you have a well in your back yard. Every day, for your entire life, you've gotten water from that well. One day you pump the handle and nothing happens. Hmmm. You try again. And again. You try harder. Eventually you'll quit trying. The next day -- and the next and the next -- you may again try. You try everything you can to get water out of that well. But if no more water is offerred, you will eventually stop trying almost completely. Every once in a while, you may try again, just for curiosity sake. If, five years later, you suddenly get water again, you may immediately go back to getting water every day. Or, if you've found that an alternative source of water is better and more reliable, you may shrug and let it go.

That's a description of extinction, complete with extinction bursts and spontaneous regeneration.

Okay, so back to giving food treats for behavior. Food treats are positive reinforcement. Clicker trainers rely soley on positive reinforcement to ensure that a behavior continues.

Traditional trainers generally rely on a mix of positive and negative reinforcement. They praise (and some use food during learning), but if the dog chooses not to do the behavior, it is "corrected." The correction is negative reinforcement. It *increases* the behavior because it tells the dog "if you don't do what I want, something unpleasant will happen."

Now, clicker or traditional, you can never stop reinforcing a behavior entirely. Either you continue to use positive reinforcement so the dog wants to do the behavior to get what he wants, or you use negative reinforcement so the dog does the behavior to avoid something bad. You may have to reinforce (positively or negatively occasionally, but you will never reach a point where the behavior is "trained" and you can just forget about it.

That doesn't mean you have to rely on food forever. In fact, I almost never use food, except in formal training sessions (not because I have a fear of spoiling my dogs, but because I'm too lazy to carry treats around). But you do have to use something the dog is willing to work for. Can you use praise? Yes, *if* the dog is willing to work for it in the particular situation. The *dog* determines what is a reinforcer, not the trainer. If you switch to praise entirely, and the dog decides it's not enough, that's not a failure of the method. That's just reality of the science of reinforcement.

I mostly use environmental reinforcers. My dog invariably wants something in the environment, which is why I need to cue a behavior. (He wants to go downstairs with me, but I'm carrying laundry. So I cue a stay, walk downstairs, and then let the opportunity to come down and be with me be the reinforcement.)

Hope this clarifies a little for anyone who wondered why we use food treats.

Melissa Alexander
mca @
copyright 2001 Melissa Alexander


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