By: Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, MSc
“He won’t do anything I ask unless I have a treat!”
If this sounds familiar, then read on….
Committed owners may feel like there has been no progress with their training when they try to reduce rewards and this happens. Contrary to what many assume, it may not actually be an issue rooted in the training itself. Rather, it can have many causes (and varied solutions) that go a little deeper, which we will explore further below.
While it is common to talk about “paying” your dog for their work, a point in time should arrive where payment is not a requirement for each and every simple request. At some point, owners and their dogs should form a mutually trusting bond and habituate to daily routines. Boundaries that have been practiced and rewarded daily should become normal, not exceptional. Yet, owners occasionally contact me with complaints that their well-trained dogs must visually see a treat in order to consider doing simple tasks – simple things such as coming to them when called inside the home, dropping a toy, or sitting at the door. When this happens, the relationship can feel like a series of business transactions. Obviously, if reinforcement stops the behaviors may fall apart with time, which is why rewarding can never stop entirely. Reinforcement is just reduced to the occasional food reward or sometimes switched to non-food rewards like praise, play, sniffing, etc. However, that is very different scenario from a situation where every behavioral request hinges on the clear presence of a treat before a dog will consider doing anything. That is NOT what most of us are going for when we embark on a journey with our dogs. This opinion may annoy other people who do modern positive reinforcement training.... While I reward my dogs heavily, I do not want to “pay” my adult dogs for every little thing I ask them to do. I want an actual trusting, other-worldly relationship with my companion animals where everyone feels safe and we want to make each other happy.
Pets are known for their loyalty and devotion to their owners. There are frequent stories in the news of pets who had a beyond-this-world connection with their owner: they knew when their owner had cancer, or stayed with their human for days as they were stranded for days in the wilderness, sought out help from strangers when their human had a medical emergency, or simply knew that their human had a bad day and needed unsolicited emotional comfort. This is particularly described in relationships between humans and dogs. These stories describe an intimate connectedness on another level. Like many reading this article, I have also experienced that special connection with my dogs over the years during my struggles related to monogenic diabetes. For many of us, that special connection is the very REASON why we have dogs in our lives.
Positive training begins by creating a transactional relationship to build trust between both parties:
dog performs a requested behavior ---> dog receives a reward
But it should not end there.
Ideally, dogs and humans learn during training about one another’s motivations, preferences, and communication to build deeper emotional connections. In the end, the bond should shift from a transactional relationship to a relational relationship – where the trusting foundation becomes what motivates us to do most things for one another as we have long-term mutual benefit in mind. Relational relationships are about developing personal connections to build trust, resulting in long-term mutual benefit rather than short term rewards. Relational relationships are rooted in trust and take into account individual needs, and operate via sharing of time/energy/resources. Those in a relational relationship operate with a mindset where resources are plentiful and easily accessible, not scarce or tightly controlled. The focus is on what we provide to the other party and not just what we receive. Traditional dog training does not take this behavioral, holistic approach. Instead, traditional obedience focuses on complete obedience in the moment - a short-term gain that must be achieved at any cost in order to maintain control. Any refusal to “obey” is seen as a challenge. It is very much an adversarial mindset toward our companion animals.
Obviously, I am completely against an adversarial mindset since it does not reflect the current science on companion animal social structures or companion animal welfare. I regularly see severe behavioral problems that can result from this type of mindset, which can be made even worse if physical punishment is utilized. However, even without physical punishment, the lack of a trusting relationship can result in severe anxiety. This can even sometimes happen with people who do clicker or “positive” training if animals are subjected to stressful training environments or frustration during training exercises. Trust with the owner can likely be maintained if the owner responds to the animal’s communication by alleviating the stress. This could involve making the exercise simpler to reduce frustration, or taking the animal to a less stressful environment. However, if the owner does not recognize (or ignores) the animal’s communication and instead continues, then the animal will likely lose trust with the owner. This can result in a transactional relationship, even if there was a relational relationship previously. I have seen this with countless dog sports teams over the years. Things may start out very positively, but then the dog may lose motivation and focus in training. They are frequently described as “stubborn” or “disobedient”. They may sniff the ground, run off to explore or seek play with other dogs, visit with other humans in the training area, etc. They may try to do other things instead of working with the owner when it is their turn in the ring. It becomes worse if the owner responds with punishment – either physical or psychological – instead of seeking to meet the dog’s needs (e.g. simpler training exercise, different type of reward, clearer communication from the human, etc). It is very unfortunate because it impacts the dog and human on many levels – the individual animal’s psychological well-being, the human-dog bond, and their performance as a team. It is something that can be typically be successfully addressed if the owner chooses to do so, but it requires a shift in mindset that some are not willing to take.
Below, we will identify the causes for this phenomenon where behaviors and relationships may become transactional over the long term, or perhaps revert from a relational relationship back to transactional in nature. We will discuss ways to address this successfully through a positive-reinforcement, relationship-building mindset.
Does your dog refuse to do anything except if you have treats visible?
When this issue arises, it usually can be attributed to one (or more) of the following, which I have divided into two categories. However, I will say that the most common reason I see is that owners may fail to read their dog’s communication that they want something (food, play, walks, etc) or they always say “no” to these requests and thus control the resources too tightly. In these living situations, dogs learn that they must leverage their good behaviors to gain access to these resources. Hence, the inability to reduce rewards.
But there are many reason, so let us explore:
Common Causes of Transactional Relationships
#1: Issues with Training Design
-- Focus is inappropriately on the dog “owing” the owner certain behavior.
Rewards are regularly withheld unless the dog complies 100%.
No rewards are given for effort or partial completion of behavioral requests.
This type of adversarial mindset can induce frustration in many animals where efforts go unacknowledged and there is no negotiation, no response to their feedback. There is usually a lot of ignored communication in these scenarios as owners focus on ignoring behaviors they do not like (which are actually communication) in favor of waiting for the behaviors they do like which they reward.
Unfortunately, the dog-human bond can be poisoned if the short-term gains of getting that one repetition of good behavior is more important than balancing training with the feedback from the animal.
-- Weaning away rewards too quickly – expecting too much, too fast
First, build significant value in behaviors/boundaries through consistent practice that is heavily rewarded every time. Then gradually reduce rewards. However, it will vary between individual animals regarding the rewards that need to be used and the length of time needed to create “significant” value.
#2: Relationship & Communication Issues
-- Missed or unacknowledged communication that inhibits access to resources
Does the animal have effective desired ways to communicate to the human that they want something?
Can they communicate that they want to do specific training activities, are hungry, want snuggles or interaction, go on walks, go to the park, go outside, etc). Make sure that you often say “Yes!” to your pet’s requests so they learn they have desirable ways to influence outcomes.
Does the human take action to fulfill the desires the animal is communicating? Rewarding things – including opportunities -- must be easily accessible and able to be requested by the animal.
Otherwise, the pet has no way to access those rewarding things other than by leveraging good behavior in exchange for them as “payment”.
Sometimes people inadvertently miss the signs in front of them. It is usually not good news for a relationship if one party has to explode in order for the other party to acknowledge and meet their needs, whatever they may be. How does this manifest in a dog? Barking or other demand behaviors, aggression, marking, destruction, other behavior issues.
-- Owner does not realize the animal is anxious or stressed (either overall high baseline anxiety, or anxiety/stress in that specific training environment)
Sometimes people think they are desensitizing an animal by subjecting them to stressful situations repeatedly, but they actually may be sensitizing them to situations. Stress must be very very low for desensitization to happen successfully. However, we can build trust by NOT subjecting them to those situations regularly, by teaching cooperative procedures (for picking them up, for grooming/vet care, etc), and responding appropriately when we recognize they are stressed.
Example: we taught our dogs a cue that means we are about to pick them up so they need to move into a specific position to be picked up. We then counter conditioned being picked up as resulting in food and play. The end result is that they know it is about to happen and where they are supposed to be, and it is less undesirable than before. They understand that they can move away if they don't really want picked up. This gives them choice, and also a more desirable choice than many behavioral alternatives (growling, snapping, biting, etc). I rarely picked any of them up since they would prefer not to give up autonomy. But if I really needed to pick any of them up for some reason, they typically allow me to do so without needing treats or other rewards. Being picked up only happens rarely and I do not abuse their trust.
Animals may be less mentally focused on the tasks at hand and less behaviorally consistent in the long term if they are stressed or anxious. That is part of our neurophysiology as mammals.
If the owner is specifically doing things that make the animal stressed (see further below) then that will erode any foundation of trust with the owner.
-- Not respecting the animal’s personal boundaries
Repeatedly doing things that makes someone uncomfortable breaks trust. Boundaries respect each individual. It impedes connection and any desire to please. With dogs, common ways people break their boundaries include: picking them up to hold them, petting them on top of the head, touching body parts they do not like, regularly forcing them into stressful social environments (with strangers/children/other dogs, busy or noisy environments), petting them when they are eating or sleeping, etc.
Sometimes people/beings can live in close proximity yet never truly connect on a deeper level. This can be true with people who are married or live together for years. It is also sometimes true between dogs who live together but never “connect”. It can also happen between species. Friendships and partnerships are emotional work and require respect for boundaries. This is true even if we do not understand those feelings. We may not understand their discomfort around strange dogs or their preferences for certain types of petting (for examples). Still, we acknowledge these realities and respect what they need by not putting them in these situations. Do not expect a dog to trust you if you keep subjecting them to uncomfortable situations.
-- Failing to create, teach and maintain boundaries (positively) with the animal
Without creating and maintaining boundaries, there is not much history of give/take in the relationship, which can lead to anxiety. There is not much foundation for how the relationship operates. Boundaries help individuals feel secure and learn how to navigate their world. Teach and reinforce these heavily not to build barriers but to build clear pathways and trust.
-- The relationship foundation needs work, more meaningful interaction, connection and trust.
The animal’s emotional and/or psychological needs are not satisfactorily met (or are met mainly by someone other than the owner) and/or the owner’s focus is mostly about the basic physiological needs (e.g. providing two meals, water, shelter, and an outdoor access doggie door but not meaningful engagement with the owner)?
Most of what dogs do for us is done on the basis of a positive relationship and a desire to please. That connection, in turn, brings about more cooperation when we ask them to do something that may not be desirable (e.g. leaving smells or friends when we call them to us at the park). Do you want to inspect their paws, apply ear drops, crate them, pick them up, or clip their nails? They need to trust that you are doing things to help them.
Are you yourself a reward for your dog? Or is it only food, and it does not matter who is feeding the treats? In addition to meaningful personal interactions, play together is essential to building true connection. Silly, goofy play with the owner is frequently the best of rewards when there is a meaningful relationship.
The Big Question -- How can we fix it?
Recognize that living and working with companion animals is about partnership and cooperation. This requires give-take from both parties. It is important to always acknowledge, and respond appropriately to their communication to teach them that they can influence outcomes in their world. Provide encouragement and do not become fixated on short-term compliance when things get difficult.
Obviously, our pets are similar to us in that they want to be taught kindly with rewards and encouragement. They want to learn in an environment where they feel safe to be their own individual. Still, some things may require sweetening to make it worth it to them, depending on their own sensitivities as an individual (e.g. being picked up and held, paw/ear cleaning, vet visits, body handling when they are injured or do not feel well, etc). Face it…it is very similar with humans! There are some things in life that we find very aversive no matter what. We will not engage deal with these situations unless there is some benefit for us. However, there should be fewer of those if it is a relational relationship both due to limiting uncomfortable situations, trust in the other person, and a willingness to please.
At the end of the day, I want a real relationship with these beautiful creatures with whom I share my life and my home, not a relationship based on transactions. They, too, deserve nothing less.
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Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, MSc (in Operations Management) is a fully certified dog behavior consultant with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC). She believes the foundation of a good cross-species relationship is understanding the needs and normal behavior patterns of each dog as an individual, as he/she was bred to be. She enjoys helping humans and dogs communicate more effectively to create brilliant relationships with joy, purpose, and fulfillment for all species involved. She offers private consulting for serious dog behavior issues, obedience/manners, and agility training. Eileen developed a unique online course to help pet parents and trainers develop reliable snake avoidance behavior off-leash through positive reinforcement techniques. These techniques have been applied by trainers worldwide to teach dogs reliable avoidance of dangerous environmental hazards and off-leash property boundaries. She lives on a small ranch in Las Vegas, Nevada with her husband and their Nederlandse Kooikerhondjes.