As a reward based trainer, a question that often comes up is “when can the treats be faded?” I’m not positive where the motivation behind this question comes from. I feel that some people may think their dog should just listen to them because of an alleged intrinsic desire to please. I feel that others may just want their hard work to pay off and for them that means that once they’ve taught their dog the desired behaviors they shouldn’t have to continue to reward them. Who knows for sure though? Everyone could have a different reason.
Let’s cut to the chase. Lack of motivation is a huge reason why our dogs aren’t doing what we’d like them to do. No living-breathing animal does something for no reason. Why do we watch football? Because it brings us joy. Why do we go to work? Because it provides us with a paycheck. If your paycheck were to be removed would you keep going to work? What if we take away the reason why our dog is doing the behavior? Should he continue to do the behavior? The answer is no. Without that motivation there is no behavior.
I like to compare pet dogs to animals in zoos. I like to do this because I feel that since we share our homes with dogs, we place them on a pedestal. For some reason this has made us feel like the rules of learning are different for them than other animals. No one refers to a bear or a giraffe as “stubborn.” Did you know that they have taught bears in zoos to voluntarily stick their leg through a hole in a fence to do husbandry procedures? This was accomplished because the bear learned that the behavior of sticking his foot through the hole in the fence provided tasty food rewards. If they asked the bear to continue to stick his foot through the hole but stopped providing the food rewards the bear would see that the behavior no longer predicts food and would stop doing the behavior. Does this now make the bear stubborn? My friend Kathy Sdao was the first zoo trainer to teach a Walrus to allow blood to be taken voluntarily. An adult walrus weighs roughly 2,200 pounds. This was taught with incremental steps using food as motivator/reward. Once again, if that food were to be removed, that walrus would stop doing the behaviors that allowed the blood to be drawn.
If you want your dog to continue to do the behaviors you’ve taught him to do then you must continue to reward those behaviors. As soon as you stop you’ll see a decrease in those behaviors and then the behavior will stop all together. You can obviously use food as the reward for behaviors, and depending on the situation you can also use affection, praise, access to smells, access to other dogs, access to people and the list goes on. Your dog decides what is motivating and reinforcing and if the behavior sticks around, you’re reinforcing it. Your best bet is to have a treat bag on when you’re out and about and to have treat jars placed strategically throughout your home for the rest of your dog’s life.