Rewarding vs. Bribing Dogs With Food

If Scruffy goes on strike and refuses to follow your commands unless you wiggle a slice of baloney in his face, you know something in his training went wrong. If you are constantly luring your dog to do your bidding using food and food alone, it's quite easy for things to get a bit out of hand. Fortunately you can take some steps to prevent this from happening while training Scruffy -- but you'll first have to learn the differences between rewarding, luring, and outright bribing!


Phase 1 - Determine what commands you want to teach your dog. If you need to train your dog to sit or lie down, luring is a training technique that will help your dog better understand the action required. In this case, food is often used as a guide for the dog to follow in the same way that a fish follows an attractive lure. However, it's important to take some steps to prevent luring from turning into bribery, otherwise you'll be stuck with a dog who listens only when there's food.

Phase 2 - Use the food as a guide to help your dog in the initial stage of learning. If you are training your dog to sit, move the food upward from your dog's nose toward his eyes so his nose will point up and his rump will touch the floor. If you want your dog to lie down, move the treat downward from his nose to the middle of his forelegs and then pull it forward between his paws. As your dog follows the treat, he should lie down.

Phase 3 - Use the food as a reward right after you dog performs the wanted behavior. For the "Sit" command, after using the food as a lure, praise and deliver the treat the moment your dog's tush touches the ground. For the "Lie down" command, after using the food as a lure, praise your dog and deliver the treat the moment his rump is on the floor and the elbows touch the ground.

Phase 4 - Phase out the lure as early as possible. The biggest mistake many dog owners make is overdoing the luring and turning it into bribery. ''A bribe is a lure gone astray,'' claims dog trainer Paul Owens in his book The Dog Whisperer: A Compassionate, Nonviolent Approach to Dog Training. After a few repetitions, stop using the treat as a lure. Instead, pronounce the command, then make the hand movement without the treat and praise and reward when your dog obeys. Gradually, work on making the hand movement less and less evident until you can also phase it out completely and have the dog respond solely to the verbal command.

Phase 5 - Start phasing out the treats. While it's good to give treats on a continuous schedule during the learning stage, it's important to start phasing them out once the dog is familiar with the command. Then you can start giving treats occasionally, at random times. This is called a variable schedule of reinforcement and works wonders in keeping your dog on his toes and paying attention to you.

Phase 6 - Remember that a lure is presented before a desired behavior to help the dog in the initial stages of learning. A reward is given after the desired behavior takes place to inform the dog he has done a good job and make him more likely to repeat it in the future. Bribery takes place when you lure for too long and show the food too often, up to the point that the dog will not perform unless food is in sight. Your dog basically knows the command well and fails to comply because he's wondering, "Where's the treat?" Then, as you reach into your pockets to get the treat, all of a sudden Rover's brain fog dissipates and he springs into action. To make things worse, he may even gobble up the treat before doing anything and tell you, "Sayonara, see you at your next training session."


If your dog refuses to obey without the promise of food, try avoid using treat bags. Some dogs learn to not listen unless you are carrying the treat bag. Hide the treats in your pocket instead. Also, never show the food before the dog has done anything, unless you are luring. This is pointless because you ultimately cannot reinforce a behavior before it has happened, according to veterinarian, animal behaviorist and dog trainer Dr. Ian Dunbar.

By Adrienne Farricelli


About the Author
Adrienne Farricelli has been writing for magazines, books and online publications since 2005. She specializes in canine topics, previously working for the American Animal Hospital Association and receiving certification from the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. Her articles have appeared in "USA Today," "The APDT Chronicle of the Dog" and "Every Dog Magazine." She also contributed a chapter in the book " Puppy Socialization - An Insider's Guide to Dog Behavioral Fitness" by Caryl Wolff.