I had an interesting conversation with a client in our session today and I wanted to blog post about it. I am a positive reinforcement trainer, and the primary reinforcer for dogs is usually food. I am all about using treats in training. Yet when my clients are sitting their Public Access Test, I expect them to do it without treats. I believe that any dog claiming to be “fully trained” and ready for a PAT should be able to work without food reinforcers. If you still need treats, you have not actually proofed that behaviour. I work my dogs without treats. I do not carry them on my person, in my car or in the dog’s gear.
The conversation I had with my client today was about checking herself when she went to treat the dog. Is she offering the reinforcement for the dog’s benefit, or her own? Properly used treats are powerful and it is common that handlers start to use them not because they NEED to, but because they are using it as a matter of habit or, because they don’t actually trust the dog’s competency and they feel they need the power of the reward. Assistance dog work, when correctly trained should be self-reinforcing.
So I posed my client this question, “How many times in a day do you ask the dog to sit?” my client went silent and thought about it and answered “I hardly ever have to, she just does it at the appropriate times” And right there was exactly my point. When this dog was learning foundation behaviours like sit, she was taught R+ with treats, and now the dog offers the behaviour almost as if she is reading her handlers’ mind. And her handler never thinks to get the treats out for every sit. She believes in the competency of the dog.
Now this team are at the intermediate stage in their assistance dog training program, they have mastered all foundation behaviours and we are working on proofing and generalisation to all environments and situations. Now is exactly the time to start significantly reducing the use of food reinforcers, of course as we add in training extra tasks, the treats will come back for those lessons but my client’s homework this week is far more conceptual then practical. I have asked the client to let go of the power of treats, embrace the possibility of letting the dog shine by taking that bright torch light of having the expectation of food reinforcers. I have even set my client the challenge of doing this in a challenging environment. I am deliberately pushing this team out of their comfort zone, and it is only when you step out of that comfortable zone that growth happens. Pushing the team outside of their comfort zone and taking away the treats means they must rely on each other and work together as a team. I have every faith that they will come back to me next week having nailed it.
If your dog can master foundation behaviours without regular food reinforcement, things like sit, loose leash walking etc, a correctly trained public access behaviour or task work is the same, it is just levelling up. Be brave enough to try these things without treats on you, if you have actually got this solidly trained, your dog will step up and preform as expected, if it is a bust it is still a really valuable exercise - it shows you where the cracks in your training are and what you need to work on.
Now I am not saying you should not reward your dog ever. I’m constantly talking to mine when we are out and about, I give him praise and pats too, but I am not a slave to having a treat pouch and honestly, I think you can also free yourself from that if you choose to believe in the competency of your dog! And if something amazing has happened on our outing that he nailed above expectations I have been known to stop and buy a dim sim or a sausage roll on the go but my dog does his job just the same way my client’s dog offers a sit. He knows his job, he loves his job and the training he has had sets him up for success even when the extraordinary happens and above all, I believe in him.