Wouldn’t it be convenient if we didn’t have to motivate our dogs?  If they came to us pre-programmed to fit seamlessly into our society and day-to-day lives? Or if we just needed to exude the right “energy” and everything else would magically fall into place? It would save us truckloads of time and frustration, and it would dramatically trim the startling numbers of pets surrendered to shelters each year.

I think that the notion that dogs just need the right “leader” in order to behave is particularly appealing to humans for a few reasons. 1) To some extent, it takes the onus off of us. If the dog is misbehaving, it isn’t because we’ve failed to teach him alternative ways to behave, it’s because he’s dominant. 2) The belief that the dog is always behaving in relation to us, not to serve his own purposes, feeds human narcissism. 3) We live in an instant-gratification, techno-speed world of plenty. We have one-click access to virtually anything that we want, or want to know more about. So slowing down to bio-speed, the rate at which our dogs learn, is challenging for us.

But here’s the thing: No properly functioning living thing does stuff for free. Period. All behavior serves a purpose. And that purpose is what is motivating the animal to behave. So, to affect behavior change in our dogs, we have to decide how we will motivate them. Dogs will work to start/continue good stuff or to end/avoid bad stuff.

It’s the carrot or the stick.

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Reward-based trainers often fall under criticism that the dog is “only doing it for the food,” as if food is somehow damaging to your relationship with your dog. A more accurate description is that the dog is working to earn reinforcement. Is food one of the most user-friendly, potent reinforcers for most dogs? Absolutely. In the early stages of training, will you be using lots and lots of food to motivate your dog? Absolutely. Over time, will you be able to get more behaviors for fewer food rewards? Yes, but the goal should never be to completely “phase out” food, unless your aim is to extinguish the behaviors you’ve installed.

We choose the carrot.

So what of the trainers who refuse to use food to train dogs? They assert that they’re tapping into the dogs’ intrinsic “desire to please” their leaders. How do they get away with affecting behavior change without addressing what truly motivates the dog? The answer is simple. They don’t. They’re motivating dogs, too, but they’re employing the “bad stuff.” Look closely. Does this magic leadership energy work without the use of a metal collar? Or a leash correction? Or an alpha roll? Give them a dog. Ask them what, exactly, will happen to the dog if he misbehaves. Ask them to describe their protocols with verbs, not adjectives.

They choose the stick.

All trainers use consequences. The only difference is transparency. That said, neither method is flawless, or free of risk. In the interest of transparency, let’s talk about the reality of each philosophy.

Have you ever heard reward-based trainers espouse that once a behavior is learned, food rewards can be removed from the equation and the dog will behave for the sheer joy of performing? It sounds great, but it’s smoke and mirrors. The reality is that, as Dr. Susan Friedman so eloquently puts it, “Behavior doesn’t just flow like a fountain. Behavior is a tool animals use to produce consequences.” Dogs are no dummies. They, like all living things, need to make a living in this world. They use their behavioral dollars wisely.

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So what are some of the usual side effects of using positive reinforcement with food? Well, you’re likely to get a dog that loves training, loves hands coming toward him, and loves people. With each reinforcement, you’re making a deposit in the dog’s trust account. And each deposit makes your dog feel safer and safer. It is also common that you’ll get a dog that is dependent on food to perform. This can be avoided with skillful use of proper mechanics, fading out food lures early on, and intermittent reinforcement schedules, but not all positive reinforcement trainers are equally adept in this arena. That’s just reality. No smoke and mirrors.

So what are some of the usual side effects of using force in training? Well, you’re likely to get a dog that does not enjoy training, is wary of hands coming toward him, and is fearful/anxious/aggressive. Each correction is a withdrawal from the dog’s trust account. Which makes your dog feel less and less safe. It is also common that you’ll get a dog that is dependent on pain and/or intimidation to perform. After all, that’s what is motivating these dogs – the termination or avoidance of something aversive. Again, no false advertising here.

To exacerbate the risks associated with the usual side effects of force, there is also the reality that fear is remarkably easy to install in a dog, and exceedingly difficult to eradicate. Even if you have the stomach to knowingly cause your dog fear or pain, is that really a risk you’re willing to take? Why choose the stick when the carrot is a viable option?

Our mentor and dear friend, Jean Donaldson, really put the “stick” philosophy into perspective during a recent webinar for Academy students on this topic:

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The carrot is an option. Choose it. 🙂