It’s Not Bribery!


Quid pro quo Clarice, quid pro quo! Rio says you promised him a treat for sitting... now that's a bribe!

“You know those cookie or clicker trainers, they are just bribing their dogs to obey the commands.  Once the dogs leave the house or there is no food, they are out of control.  My dog knows he has to comply or he gets a swat at a distance (she then brandishes her e-collar remote and ends up correcting her dog).”—a lady at the dog park talking to another owner (I was guilty of eavesdropping and probably impulsively glaring).

This is something I hear all the time… that clicker trainers or people who use food to train their dogs are just bribing the dog to work and that the dogs don’t listen if the food isn’t present.  I hear it so often that it really has started to bug me.  There is a very big difference between rewarding desired behavior and bribing a dog…I actually am not really sure it is really possible to bribe a dog—I think it requires a level of abstract thought that I’m not sure dogs possess.

So what is a bribe?

A bribe is very clearly a quid pro quo or tit for tat type set up–if you do X I will do Y.  This is a very deliberately set up relationship where it is communicated to the parties what everyone will be getting out of it.

Ex: “Johnny, if you eat your vegetables I will give you your dessert”

So what is a reward?

A reward is simply something good that happens when someone does a desired behavior.  There is no agreement or relationship involved—no expressed quid pro quo discussing desired behavior and the result of said behavior.

Ex:  At work, John goes above and beyond his normal duty and finds a critical accounting error, as a reward the company gives him a special bonus in the next paycheck.

I'll give you the ball if you "speak"... c'mon... do you want the ball...then you better speak!!

I don’t know about you, but I’m not exactly sure I can say, “Rio, if you sit you will get this piece of hotdog” and have him understand the implications of that bribe.  I don’t think I can create the necessary communication to set up a bribe with my dogs.  The closest thing to a bribe I can think of, would be when owners can’t recall their dogs but say “COOOKIE!!!!” or “CAR RIIIIIDE” to get their dogs to come back.  While I’m not entirely sure I can bribe a dog, I can, however, reward desired behavior by giving him a piece of hotdog to build up the behavior…but there is no agreement that he will get a hot dog every time he sits.

Dogs not complying without food has very little to do with the training methodology; it has most everything to do with the trainer not properly weaning off of the treats.  I find that using life rewards, conditioning secondary reinforcers (praise, tug, petting), rewarding from food not on my person, and using a variable reward system sets the dogs up for complying even with out treats in sight.

Shayne practicing a sit-stay as Rio gets to play some frisbee... there is no food reward... but she'll get to play for complying

Both Shayne and Rio have been trained using clicker training and treats.  Neither of them have compliance issues.  Since Shayne’s doggie issues have improved, I don’t tend to have food on me for daily excursions but I still don’t have any problems with non-compliance.   I use food during training sessions to keep the behaviors really sharp and crisp but when we are out and about, life rewards and secondary reinforcers are all the pups need to comply.

The number of times I hear “my dog knows ‘sit’ when I have a treat” is just crazy.  Dogs are smart creatures people!  Dogs learn that if they don’t “sit” when asked with out food that their handler will then go an get food and then ask for the sit again.  Let’s face it… many poorly behaved dogs have simply been taught and reinforced for their bad behavior by their humans!


About Success Just Clicks

I'm a dog trainer and enthusiast who moonlights as a blogger and custom tug-toy maker.
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2 Responses to It’s Not Bribery!

  1. Dayna Dreger says:

    Lovely post! I’m a clicker trainer myself and have absolutely no issues with non-compliance in all aspects of life. In my own home, in the homes of others, out in public, or just “living life”, my dogs respond to commands and behave appropriately without promise of food rewards. I don’t carry a clicker with me all the time, and I only pull it out for specific training sessions. Through proper clicker training, distraction exposure and efficient weaning off of the clicker (and treats), coupled with reinforcing non-food rewards (verbal, play, toy, physical, etc.), I have two very well-balanced and well-behaved dogs in a wide variety of situations. And not just in situations where happy “pet dogs” find themselves, but extreme situations present in training and competing in venues from flyball to obedience, serving as therapy dogs, and manning booths in bustling trade-show situations.

    • Dayna, Exactly! Even in high-drive places/environments there isn’t a need for food rewards for behavior if it’s been trained and weaned properly. I couldn’t imagine NOT using food to start basic frisbee handling and tricks… but there is certainly no food out on the frisbee field yet both pups can do a two-minute routine and work with no problems.

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