It brings to mind deals done in dark smoke-filled back rooms by corrupt politicians. When parents use bribes they are often left feeling guilty, but I see my dog training clients use them all the time without seeing them for what they are. I am beginning to think people are confusing the mere presence of food with reinforcement based training. Just because the food is there doesn’t mean you are using positive reinforcement training. In fact, if you are using bribes I would argue there is actually a significant cost to your training in the long run. There is a key difference between bribes and a reinforcer that I want to look at with you.

What is a Bribe?
something valuable (such as money) that is given in order to get someone to do something
persuade (someone) to act in one’s favor, typically illegally or dishonestly, by a gift of money or other inducement.

As the definitions above show, a bribe is persuasion and is seen as dishonest at best and illegal at worst.  This is startlingly different from the definitions of reinforcement or reward.

What does Reinforce, Reinforcement, Reward mean?
strengthen or support, especially with additional personnel or material
The action or process of reinforcing or strengthening. The process of encouraging or establishing a belief or pattern of behavior, especially by encouragement or reward.
A thing given in recognition of one’s service, effort, or achievement.

Even the language in the above definitions of reinforce feel better than the bribe definitions. I see words above like encourage, support, recognition and achievement, and these words clearly describe the kind of training relationship I want with my dog and that I want you to have with yours.

A simple way to remember the difference is that a bribe happens before the behavior – to elicit the behavior – and a reinforcement happens after – in recognition of the behavior.

What does this mean in training for you and your dog?

 I see people holding out food or toys and then recalling or asking for attention.  They look annoyed when it doesn’t work, and blame the dog for being greedy or playing them.  Maybe they are, and who could blame them?  You have set up the scenario, and being the self-serving creatures they are, they are going to game your system. This is why bribes are a flawed way to build behavior and will always fail you.  Your dog will learn to wait for a better offer just like the politician who wants more money to keep a shady secret or vote your way.  What to do?

Trainer side note: usually this happens when people have put dogs in training environments they are not ready for.

Aim small and reinforce heavily the behavior you want to grow.  Remember that reinforcers encourage and strengthen patterns of behavior.  For example, if you are working on your dog’s attention to you in the face of a busy dog-filled place, resist the urge to wave chunks of chicken in front of your dog like smelling salts while begging for his attention.  Be worth looking at,  i.e. get low, clap, talk in your doggy voice, and move.  When he looks at you as if to say “dang, lady, have you gone completely nuts?” THEN pop the chicken in his mouth.  Yes, he will go right back to looking at the environment, but repeat your silly behavior and when he looks again, pop the chicken in his mouth. 

Trainer side note: As you do this, back away from what is probably too heavy a distraction for your dog.

Every time you pop chicken in his mouth for looking at you, there is a pattern of behavior being established: Look at mom, get chicken.   Someone is going to start looking at mom more often and for longer.  Then your training can really take off!

The same goes for calling your dog to you.  If you lead with what you are offering, your dog will absolutely begin to hold out for a better offer.  Wouldn’t you?  So now that you understand the difference between a bribe and a reinforcer, I am betting you can predict where I am going with this.

The behavior then produces the treat.  Call your dog to you, encourage with your voice, clapping, getting low or even running away.  When he makes it to you, have a chicken party.  You are establishing a belief and a pattern that moving toward and catching up with your person is great fun, and when (WHEN) you get there, your person gives you chicken.  Guess who is a little more invested in coming when called next time?

As far as politicians and children are concerned, reward your politicians by voting for the ones who do what you like and vote the way you like; their reward is staying in office.  For children, consider changing the leader phrase “if you behave…. I will buy you ice cream,” to “because you made the choice to (read quietly, share your toy, or pick any behavior you like in a situation), lets go grab some ice cream.”  The first is an ice cream bribe; the second is an ice cream reinforcer that is attached to a specific behavior choice.

P.S. This stuff works in all your relationships.

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