One of the Biggest Mistakes Humans Make When Training Dogs

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog training mistakes

Story at-a-glance -

  • Training a dog can be challenging, probably because humans think like humans instead of dogs
  • One common mistake pet parents make is in how they give treat rewards during training sessions — either too often, or not at all
  • One of the keys to effective reward-based training is to keep your dog guessing as to when he’ll receive a treat for an appropriate response
  • It’s also important to use praise during training, as many dogs actually prefer it to treats

Training a dog to respond to verbal commands doesn't come easily to most pet parents, which is why so many dogs lack behavior training. Sadly, shelters and rescues across the U.S. are filled with animals who received little to no training or socialization.

That's why I always strongly encourage pet parents not to give up on their dogs. Help is available — from shelters, nonprofits, reputable breeders, veterinarians, animal behaviorists and positive dog trainers. There are also websites, books, videos, TV shows and other resources dedicated to helping dog parents help their pets become well-balanced and well-behaved.

A Common Problem With Reward-Based Training

Interestingly, one of the most easily remedied mistakes many people make when training their dog involves how often they give treats for good performance.

According to certified professional dog trainer Jeff Stallings, writing for Bark magazine, while reward-based training is universally regarded as the most successful method for teaching commands to dogs, a significant number of pet parents unintentionally sabotage their pet's progress by using treats ineffectively.

At one end of the spectrum are those trainers who give treats every time a dog responds appropriately (aka "continuous reinforcement"); at the other end are people who give no treats at all. Both these conditions can lead to lower command compliance, meaning your dog may not learn to reliably respond each time you give a command.

If you find that your dog will only respond to your commands, or a specific command such as "sit," if there's a treat involved, chances are you've rewarded him with treats too often and for too long.

"Essentially," writes Stalling, "the dog had learned two things had to be true for him to comply: the sit cue plus a treat. If either were not true, he'd find something more interesting to do."1

The Key to Success: Keep Your Dog Guessing

Stalling makes the point that continuous reinforcement (CR) is necessary when teaching a new command so that your dog learns to make the connection between your verbal cue, hand gesture and a reward when he responds appropriately. However, if you continue to give treats for too long, he may just stop working for them.

"Why bother sitting quickly, or at all, when a treat invariably appears," writes Stalling. "CR for too long also causes the dog to become dependent on the food reward: he will refuse to work unless food is presented."

Before your dog reaches that point, which is usually within a few days of teaching a new command, you need to change things up so he doesn't know when to expect a reward in return for an appropriate response. Stalling uses the analogy of a slot machine to illustrate:

"The psychology behind slots — enticing folks to pump coins into machines for hours on end — is that the probability of winning remains constant, even though the number of plays it takes to recoup your money, or better yet, hit the jackpot, changes. The unpredictability makes doing the same mundane activity, over and over, interesting and exciting. You can take advantage of this same psychology to train your dog faster."

When you're sure your dog understands what you expect when you give a specific command, move from continuous reinforcement to variable ratio (VR) reinforcement with treats. Stalling suggests giving a treat one time out of every three appropriate responses, gradually increasing the ratio over several successive training sessions.

Since it's important to keep your dog guessing and working for his rewards, don't develop a rhythm of, say, a treat every other time. Give treats back-to-back some of the time and spread them out over several trials at other times. Stalling recommends twice-daily two-to-five-minute training sessions, increasing the VR until you're giving treats for, say, one out of every ten appropriate responses.

He also recommends continuing to reward your dog occasionally to avoid arriving at the other end of the spectrum where treats are never given for desired behavior.

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Is Praise as Effective as Treats in Reward-Based Training?

Most obedience-trained dogs are eager to please their humans, so it's important to use this to your advantage (and your pet's) during training sessions — especially if you happen to have a dog who actually prefers praise to treats. In a 2016 study conducted at Emory University, researchers used an fMRI scanner to observe the brains of 15 dogs as their owners either praised them or offered them a food treat.2

The dogs were first trained to associate three different objects with three different outcomes. A pink toy truck meant a food reward; a blue toy knight meant verbal praise from the dog's owner; and a hairbrush meant no reward. The dogs were given 32 trials for each object while the scanner recorded their brain activity. Predictably, all 15 dogs reacted more strongly to the truck and the toy knight than the hairbrush. Also:

  • Nine of the 15 showed similar neural activity in response to both the truck and the toy knight, indicating they found both treats and praise equally motivating
  • Four dogs showed an especially strong reaction to the blue toy knight, suggesting they were apt to be more motivated by praise than food
  • The remaining two dogs showed a consistently stronger reaction to the pink toy truck, indicating a preference for treats over praise

This means that for most of the dogs (13 of the 15), the areas of the brain responsible for reward and decision-making showed the same or more activity when they were praised than when they received a treat.

For Some Dogs, Praise Beats Treats Every Time

In the second phase of the study, the same dogs were put in a simple maze constructed with baby gates. There was a bowl of food at the end of one path in the maze, and their humans sat with their backs to them at the end of a second path. Most of the dogs took the path that led to their owners and received praise.

The dogs who headed for the food bowl were the same ones who showed a preference for treats over praise during the fMRI scan. Emory neuroscientist and lead study author Dr. Gregory Berns summed it up this way in a news release:

"We are trying to understand the basis of the dog-human bond and whether it's mainly about food, or about the relationship itself. Out of the 13 dogs that completed the study, we found that most of them either preferred praise from their owners over food, or they appeared to like both equally. Only two of the dogs were real chowhounds, showing a strong preference for the food."3

One of the chowhounds was a shorthaired terrier mix named Ozzie. Ozzie chose food over his owner's praise 100 percent of the time. Fortunately, his human understands Ozzie is food-obsessed and loves him anyway!

Conventional wisdom holds that dogs are primarily "Pavlovian machines" says Berns. In other words, their only motivation is food, and the humans in their lives are simply a means to an end. However, a more current view is that dogs also seek human contact for its own sake.

For example, Ozzie's opposite was a Labrador-Golden Retriever mix named Kady, who was quite consistent in her preference for praise. This will make perfect sense if you're familiar with these breeds, as they tend to be exceptionally motivated by a desire to please their humans.

That's why there are so many Labs and Goldens involved in therapy work, whereas dogs who aren't highly motivated by praise may be better suited for work requiring a degree of independence, such as search and rescue.

"Dogs are individuals and their neurological profiles fit the behavioral choices they make," says Berns. "Most of the dogs alternated between food and owner, but the dogs with the strongest neural response to praise chose to go to their owners 80 to 90 percent of the time.

It shows the importance of social reward and praise to dogs. It may be analogous to how we humans feel when someone praises us."