One of the most unhelpful myths around positive reinforcement training is the idea of ‘spoiling the dog.’ People think doling out treats with a generous hand will simply reinforce a pattern of unwanted behaviour or make a dog unmanageable.
It’s a really sticky myth and can create a barrier to progress for people when working with a fearful dog. Because in the early stages, we aren’t asking for any particular obedience behaviour in return for treats. We’re just establishing a positive association: ‘Hey - these people, this place, that unfamiliar dog means great, tasty food. Cool, huh?’. And achieving that means rapid, frequent, repeated delivery of good stuff at every opportunity where you can make that association.
Unfortunately, so entrenched is the idea of not ‘spoiling’, that it’s often quite tough for even the most loving, committed dog owners to dismiss it when training their fearful dog. There’s almost an in-built switch in our brain that says: ‘Ooh, that’s enough now.’ But that off switch is related to human social conventions and experience, not dog behaviour. Maybe it’s because we’re uncomfortable with the idea of ‘unearned rewards’. Or, perhaps, we get catapulted back to a childhood ‘Don’t eat all those sweets or you won’t eat your dinner’ state of mind. Whatever it is, with fearful dogs, we have to put it aside.
Make the right connections
In the early stages of training, whether a dog is afraid of unfamiliar people, other dogs or a new environment, you need to be delivering plenty of the good stuff, fast and frequently. Behaviourally, expect nothing in return other than a gradual building of positive associations. You don’t need to go out of your way to give more exposure than normal to what the dog finds scary. But when you do encounter it at a level where your dog is fine, break out the tasty food morsels and plenty of them. The individual treats don’t have to be big. In fact, it makes sense to keep them small so the dog doesn’t lose their appetite. But be really alive to spotting the opportunities and when it comes to the rate of treat delivery, it’s go large or go home.
Don't expect them to be 'brave'
We don’t need a fearful dog to ‘earn’ their treats. We absolutely don’t need them to be brave. We want them to feel safe and comfortable and to choose to make the next step because they feel really secure in doing so. And that can be counter intuitive for the people side of the partnership, too – ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ and all that. But while as humans, we may prize courage, with fearful dogs, demanding bravery is counterproductive.
When #Sophie from Romania was hiding behind the sofa, we weren’t trying to coax her out with food. But if her natural curiosity made her peek out, we wanted to create the association between just glimpsing Rory or Diane with something tasty. Gradually, as the positive associations grew, she would come further, until she was seeking them out. And feeling positive and safe with Rory and Diane made her feel more secure in her unfamiliar environment.
The same rules apply if you’re working with a dog who is fearful of other dogs. We want lots of rapid treating when your dog sees another at distance. But always, always keeping them feeling safe, not demanding bravery by getting too close. If the dog won’t take treats, they’re too anxious and you need to put distance between you and what’s making them afraid.
In the early stages of training fearful dogs, the process can seem glacial and progress hard to spot and celebrate. But it does come and then starts to accelerate.
And for everyone who, perfectly reasonably, is wondering where this all ends – a fearless, but obese, demanding dog? The answer is no. As the dog becomes really comfortable with the early object of their fear, we can scale back the treats and move on to the next phase of training where we start teaching the behaviours we want. Using treats (and plenty of them) with fearful dogs isn’t ‘spoiling’ anything. It’s putting in place the foundations for a confident future.