Treats are not bribery!
Even today, some dog guardians worry about giving their dogs treats, thinking it's like trying to bribe them. But treating your dog isn't just a nice gesture; it's like depositing love in their "emotional bank account." Picture it this way: when you reward your dog with treats, you're not just paying them for behaviour; you're also teaching them that the behaviour leads to rewards, encouraging them to repeat it. Or if you are looking to change a behaviour you are treating the redirection of the behaviour to something else such as barking and throwing a treat, cueing them to find it. You are not rewarding the barking, but engaged in a game of find it.
Imagine this: when your dog sees you and gets treats or verbal praise, a special part of their brain lights up with joy. This not only brightens their day but also helps them remember and learn.
We know this thanks to Dr. Berms fMRI study. Researchers wanted to understand the canine brain and whether the canine brain lit up as human brains do in the presence of something dogs as a species love. An fMRI machine was used to look at the dogs brain whilst their guardians spoke to them normally and whilst they verbally praised them and found a lot of positive activity within the caudate nucleus upon hearing their owners voices. (1)
Our dogs brains also light up when seeing or hearing their owners voice and perform playful behaviours and experience arousal when in the presence of their owner.
This special part of the brain is called the limbic system, and it's fascinating. It controls emotions like happiness and excitement, but it also manages fear, anxiety, and even aggression. Unfortunately, if the negative emotions take over, it can make your dog feel overwhelmed, stressed, and trigger stacked which can result in a behaviour that many guardians feel is "bad".
For myself there isn't bad behaviour, there are emotions that dogs display in response to what is causing them to feel any emotion. Just as we display emotions in responses to situations and events. These can be negative or positive. Fun and happy memories or sad and traumatic and it's important to understand that this is the same for dog's and we have a duty of care to ensure that we help a dog through trauma and negative emotional states.
This knowledge isn't new; it goes back to the work of Ivan Pavlov in the 1890s. He showed that dogs (and all animals) learn through what's called Pavlovian conditioning. By finding when he rang a bell, and paired the bell with food, dogs salivated because they associate it with food. (2)
Pavlovian conditioning is a fundamental way all animals, including dogs, learn. It's about linking two things together, like a bell and food, to create a response. (3)
So, when you come across terms like CR (conditioned response) or US (unconditioned stimulus), remember they're part of this learning process. CR is the learned response, like salivating at the sound of a bell, while US is something that naturally causes a reaction, like hunger.
When you pair something neutral (like the bell) with something natural (like food), you're setting the stage for effective learning, turning the neutral thing into a conditioned stimulus.
I absolutely love pattern games for dogs. Based on Pavlov's theory of classical conditioning, it can be a fun and effective way to train your dog and not just reinforce desired behaviours but open a communication system with your dog and help them in changing their emotions.
Here's an example Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt is a fantastic protocol for dogs who feel fear, one game is the 1,2,3 pattern game and is an excellent game to teach as it creates a predictable and safe pattern for dogs which can allow both of you to gain distance from triggers whilst reducing stress. https://youtu.be/-v2-QG0MLv0
Over time, you can add variation to the game. Such as practising at home first for generalisation and success, so there are no distractions whilst you are both learning this new communication system and then the idea is to generalise the behaviour so that your dog responds to your communications in various situations.
By following a pattern game, you're essentially applying Pavlovian conditioning. The cue becomes the conditioned stimulus (CS), the treat is the unconditioned stimulus (US) that naturally leads to a reward response (conditioned response or CR), and your dog learns to associate the cue with the positive outcome. Over time, this strengthens the behaviour you want, making it more likely that your dog will begin to feel different emotions to previous triggers and stress.
For years humans have rewarded dogs with food or play, a great example of this is dogs serving as guides for their handlers as far back as 1916 in Germany. A decade later in the US "The seeing eye school" became the first guide dog school in the US, established by Eliot Jack Humphrey. (4)
Humphrey emphasised the importance of the relationship between the dog and the handler. Emphasising vocal tones and body language when used with the dog for the rapport with the handler. (5)
Thanks to a focus turning to the learning of the behaviour of animals becoming a wider interest, ethology became popular within Europe, in modern day we know this as applied animal behaviour studies. Focusing on captive animals such as dogs to improve welfare through an understanding of behaviour and by exploring their environment and understanding the why of the behaviour. This is thanks to Nikolaas Tinbergen and his four questions. (6)
Nikolaas Tinbergen's Four Questions are a framework in ethology (the study of animal behaviour) used to analyse and understand animal behaviour. When applied to dog training, they can help trainers, behaviourists and researchers gain a comprehensive understanding of a dog's behaviour. Here's a summary and explanation of Tinbergen's Four Questions in the context of dog training: Causation (Mechanism): This question seeks to understand the physiological and genetic mechanisms that underlie a dog's behaviour. In dog training, it's important to consider what causes a specific behaviour in a dog. For example, if a dog is exhibiting aggressive behaviour, trainers/ behaviourists might investigate whether it's due to fear, trauma, the environment, pains and unwellness, or other factors. Understanding the causes helps to tailor our approach to modify the behaviour effectively.
Development (Ontogeny): This question focuses on how a dog's behaviour develops over its lifetime. When applied to dog training, trainers/behaviourists consider how a dog's behaviour changes as it grows from a puppy into an adult. For instance, puppy behaviour, such as playfulness and curiosity, will naturally evolve into more mature behaviours.
Function (Adaptation): This question explores the evolutionary purpose or function of a behaviour in the dog's natural environment. In dog training, understanding the function of a behaviour helps trainers address the dog's needs. For instance, digging may have served a purpose for wild dogs in terms of finding food or creating shelter. In a domestic setting, trainers can provide alternative outlets for these natural instincts, such as providing a designated digging area.
Evolution (Phylogeny): This question examines how a behaviour has evolved over generations and how it compares to related species. In dog training, considering a behaviour's evolutionary history can provide insights into why certain behaviours are more prevalent in specific breeds or how they might vary among different dog breeds. It can also inform training methods that respect a dog's natural inclinations.
In essence, applying Tinbergen's Four Questions to dog training allows trainers/behaviourists to analyse behaviour comprehensively by considering its causes, development, function, and evolutionary context. This holistic approach can lead to more effective and humane training methods that consider the dog's natural instincts and needs.
So from this cognitive science comes in, where the idea that a dogs mind is a blank slate only controlled by reinforcement or consequences was rejected. Cognitive science embraces all of the above and instead acknowledging the complexity of the canine brain and focusing on innate behaviour, which simply means behaviours that will develop regardless of environmental influence. Modularity of mind which is a further understanding of how the canine brain works and the different areas of the brain, neuron activity and processesses as well as cognitive processes, which is how the brain receives and understands information. (7)
So the next time if you are wondering or hear someone else say giving dog's treats is bribery, remember all of the psychology and understanding over the last century which has sought to understand and value our relationships with dogs, the understanding of how dogs learn and how we as their guardians or trainers/behaviourists can support a dog to not only learn, but also change emotions, regulate emotions and feel supported and encouraged by their guardian, simply by using rewards - positive reinforcement!
For me, it's heartwarming to know that every time a dog experiences something good, it lights up their brain. It's so much better than subjecting them to negative or aversive experiences that can alter their brain chemistry. This is what we have to remember: positive reinforcement lights up the brain and negative reinforcement alters brain chemistry in a negative way.
So there you have it, a simple but magical piece of knowledge about our beloved dogs and exactly why treats are so important and not bribery.
A. Gábor, N. Kaszás, Á. Miklósi, T. Faragó, A. Andics. Interspecific voice discrimination in dogs. Biol. Futur., 70 (2019), pp. 121-127, 10.1556/019.70.2019.15
Thorndike EL. A proof of the law of effect. Science. (1933) 77:173–5. doi: 10.1126/science.77.1989.173-a
Chance P. Learning and Behavior. Cengage Learning (2013). Available online at: https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=QZUWAAAAQBAJ
Humphrey E, Warner L. Working Dogs: An Attempt to Produce a Strain of German Shepherds Which Combines Working Ability and Beauty of Conformation. Dogwise Pub (2005).
Pemberton N. Cocreating guide dog partnerships: dog training and interdependence in 1930s America. Med Humanit. (2019) 45:92–101. doi: 10.1136/medhum-2018-011626
Zawistowski S, Reid P. Dogs in today's society: the role of applied animal behaviour. Domestic Dog. (2016) 227–44. doi: 10.1017/9781139161800.012
Hall, N.J. et al. (2021) Working Dog Training for the twenty-First Century, Frontiers. Available at: https://www.frontiersin.org/.../10.3389/fvets.2021.646022... (Accessed: 13 September 2023).
Image description:title in grey "Cookie pushers vs the limbic system" a comic strip with 4 windows with a grey background. The first window on the top left has two speech bubbles, one says "I was called a cookie pusher today!" on a dark pink and purple background on a spring.
The second speech bubble says "That's a good thing, I'll explain why!" on a green background with white clouds.
There is an image of a chocolate smartie cookie and a plain smartie cookie. Three pink stars surround the cookies.
The second window to the top right has the dogs brain with the larger outer of the dogs brain and an intersection of the smaller inner brain of the dog. With two arrows pointing out the cerebrum and caudate nucleus. There are two speech bubbles. The top right speech bubble reads: ”the caudate nucleus lights up with rewards and love!” and the bottom right speech bubble reads ”the cerebrum is the limbic system, responsible for over riding the cortical system during times of fear and stress! Who would want to do that to a dog? Not a cookie pusher!
The bottom left window has an explosion speech bubble in the middle of the top of the window which reads Thanks to Dr.Berns fMRI study (2015)
The bottom left speech bubble reads ”the caudate nucleus is also responsible for learning with good old habituation!” To the right of the window there is a jar of treats filled with sprats, cheese, beef, crab sticks, bacon stripes, chicken and Jr pate coins. Above the treat jar is an orange explosion bubble which says "Wow" in blue and green gradient.
The right hand bottom window has a purple speech bubble with lightning coming from the bottom which reads: Just like us Dr.berns also used hotdogs (no cookies). There is a green and red speech bubble which reads: ”so remember each time you use positive reinforcement, you are literally lighting up your dog's brain!” to the right of the window is a grey and cream Wolfdog, with his tongue lolling and amber eyes. To the left of his head is an explosion bubble in yellow and green which reads "wow."
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