This is a common complaint/problem for dog owners (or trainers) who are either inexperienced, ill-trained, or mis-informed. A version of this complaint is often cited by critics of positive reinforcement training, claiming that positive reinforcement methods don’t work and that you’ll have to bribe your dog for the rest of its life.
The good news is this is a simple problem to fix. It just takes an accurate understanding of how dogs learn and how to effectively use positive reinforcement (including the fading of LURES).
LURE vs BRIBE:
Treats (or other reinforcements — aka things your dog would like at the moment) are very helpful for training a new behaviour (or improving a behaviour in a more challenging context). Sometimes these reinforcements can be used to LURE a behaviour, but the LURE should be faded away ASAP to avoid turning the LURE into a BRIBE. A BRIBE is when your dog already knows how to do the behaviour in that context (at that level of difficulty) but refuses to do the behaviour until he/she sees the reinforcement.
For example, suppose your dog refuses to come to you unless he/she sees you shaking the treat bag. Perhaps you started using food to LURE the dog to come to you. Great! But after your dog is consistently coming to you when you have a treat in your hand (or the treat bag is visible to the dog), you need to start FADING THE LURE. This means you don’t show the dog the treat in your hand (or the treat bag on the counter) until AFTER the dog has come to you. When you start this, you may have to help your dog a bit by showing the dog the treat after the dog has started to come to you. Eventually you can delay this until the dog has come to you the complete distance.
This may take some time as you fade the LURE, especially if you are trying to get the behaviour in a difficult situation for your dog (an environment with lots of distractions, a longer distance, or a longer duration of the behaviour).
FOOD IS NOT FOREVER: FADING THE REINFORCEMENT
Ideally, you want the steps to look like this:
- You say the command (CUE)
- Your dog does the behaviour
- You praise and deliver the REINFORCEMENT immediately (within 3 seconds of your dog completing the behaviour, and no other behaviour is inserted between that desired behaviour and the delivery of the reinforcement).
Once your dog is consistently completing the behaviour without seeing the reinforcement until AFTER the behaviour is completed, you can begin to think about FADING THE REINFORCEMENT for the behaviour.
To do this, you need to ensure your dog is consistently performing the behaviour at the desired level of performance. Up until now, your delivery of the reinforcement has been consistent and predictable: like a vending machine (one that works well). When you start to FADE delivery of the REINFORCEMENT, you want to do this gradually. You want to start delivering a reinforcement most of the time (instead of all the time) — like a vending machine that usually works but every once in a while doesn’t provide your candy or drink after you put the money in. After some time at this stage, if your dog is still performing the behaviour at the level of performance you desire, you can fade the reinforcement another step, dropping down to delivering a reinforcement some of the time (like a slot machine instead of a vending machine). If the dog’s performance begins to degrade, then you have made it too difficult for your dog. You may need to move up to a higher rate of reinforcement for a bit and then move back and forth between “most of the time ” and “some of the time.” When you are happy with the level of performance and it’s been consistent for a block of time, you can try dropping down to delivering the reinforcement infrequently (like a slot machine that rarely pays out but it’s worth it when it does).
There are other factors involved in improving behaviours, so if you find these instructions don’t solve your problem, please contact me for help.