Dog Treats and Conditioning



by Kevin Myers on September 28, 2012

  For those of you who don’t know, this stand for “There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch.” It’s long been my contention that one of the best ways to bring a new dog into your home is to practice TANSTAAFL with them. In essence, food and treats are only given out only for the following:

  • To reinforce behaviors that we want repeated
  • To redirect a dog away from the inappropriate to the appropriate
  • To train new behaviors that don’t yet exist
  • To establish that the human of the house is a good person to check in with
  • To establish the trust that is the focus of rewards based training

Yes this requires the owner to have treats available at all times and I guess it can be construed as a hassle and a mess. But would you rather have a dog that grasps the rules of the house, or clean and unfettered pockets.

I want to discuss two main arguments I get about this philosophy, one from each end of the spectrum.

I Want The Dog to Work for Me Not for Treats

This argument comes from a mistaken (in my opinion) belief that dogs should recognize us immediately as their superiors; that they have in them an innate respect for us as humans. Would we expect that out of a grizzly bear? Where is the science in this? While I will admit I believe that dogs have a natural affinity for us, I don’t see it as a hard wired behavior to be supplicant. We are relevant to them because we can provide resources they need. As I said in an earlier quote:

Dogs are not born with a part of their brain that compels them to work for humans simply because we are human. They are creatures of consequence and relevance, they are parsimonious. If we want them to learn our rules we need to provide them with reinforcement that is meaningful to them so that they couple a behavior with a beneficial consequence.


By using a dogs daily allowance of food and treats to reward behaviors that result in good consequences they quickly learn that in their new environment, you are relevant and a provider of good outcomes. That seems like a win/win situation to me, why should I care that their reasoning is mostly biological imperative? I still get a relationship with a “fellow mortal” (nod to Debbie Jacobs) that fulfills the reason I have dogs in the first place, not as my reflection to the world, but as my reflection to myself. Now for the second argument.

You’re Putting too Much Pressure on the Dog to Perform

This argument mostly comes from trainers who believe that making a dog perform in a new environment like this is just too stressful for the dog. But I disagree; the point of TANSTAAFL is not to pressure the dog at all but to reward them for choices they freely make. Any time I have a pocket full of treats I am able to notice a behavior that pleases me and freely reward it with a yes and a treat thus strengthening that behavior. To build trust, I can hand feed the dog at dinner time if I choose. If they are weary of me, I simply find a distance where they are not weary and work on reducing that distance, but I let them choose the distance each time. It’s not about working for their lunch, it’s about using their lunch to show them the good things and direct them away from the bad ones. They are learning that certain behaviors are relevant and some are not.

Of course food is not the only reward during this time, a nice sit at the door can mean a nice little play reward outside. An over exuberant greeting can me being ignored until I have the behavior I want. All it takes on my part is having a reward handy and the patience to ignore and wait or redirect to the desired behavior.

Dogs are always looking to establish the rules and consequences in a new environment, by giving them rewards in this way they learn that their behavior can affect their life in a positive way. And isn’t that what we are trying to train in the first place? So for me having messy, smelly pockets is a small price to pay for a happy and biddable dog. And I really don’t mind it if they don’t respect me simply because I am human.



Originally posted by Dog Lover’s Digest and reposted with permission.  Read the posts and join the debate about the training, health, behavior, and welfare of “Man’s Best Friend.” Trainers, vets and dog lover’s are welcome to engage and help us to find better ways to live with our canine companions.