“Blasphemy!” you say?
As a whole, owners are preoccupied with never reinforcing bad behaviour. However, sometimes the best thing you can do is give your dog a treat – even if they are doing the opposite of what you want!
Feed the Emotion
Emotional turbulence is a primary reason for behaviours that we find distasteful. Barking, lunging, jumping, growling, snapping… These are all problems that come from a place of fear, anger, over-stimulation, or another emotion. The “bad behaviour” that the dog engages in is symptomatic of feeling out of sorts. Notably, this “bad behaviour” is often not intentional, so giving the dog a treat isn’t going to result in repeating a behaviour they weren’t intentionally doing in the first place. In fact, feeding a dog in the presence of something they find aggravating or scary can actually stop the behaviour the owner doesn’t like, because the dog develops a happy or calm association.
To illustrate, imagine that you have a work colleague who takes great joy in jumping out from a hiding place and shouting at you to give you a fright. Every time this happens, you let out a little shriek and fling your hands up in front of your face. Your colleague thinks this is hilarious, and he wants you to shriek louder and wave your hands more. Every time he jumps out to frighten you, he gives you chocolate truffles, caramels, cookies, and so on in an attempt to reinforce your behaviour. Are you going to shriek more uncontrollably? You may actually start to look forward to seeing that annoying co-worker because seeing him means cookies!
All animals learn through associations, and our dogs are no exception. In fact, associations can be a much more potent type of learning than consequences. This is why feeding a scared or angry dog won’t make them more scared or angry, and as they build a good association, you will actually see less “bad behaviour.” Keep in mind, however, that if ensure your dog is only a little bit bothered when you feed, your training will be more effective. Even though you aren’t reinforcing the “bad behaviour,” a very frightened, angry, or over-stimulated dog likely won’t see any point in eating.
Just Give Me a Reason!
What if your dog isn’t upset or over-stimulated? What if he just isn’t “getting it” in a training session? Even then, I will sometimes feed my dog, Rowan, for giving me the wrong answer.
In order to train a dog and have them retain that information as effectively as possible, it’s important for your dog to want to work with you. An engaged dog is attentive, ready, and willing to work. In order to create and maintain this state of mind, your dog needs to have a reason to work. For example, you give food to the dog in exchange for them “working” for you. Sit, heel, walking hand-stand, whatever the behaviour is, the food provides motivation for your dog to engage with you in order to learn.