Short answer: it’s not bribery in the same way your paycheck isn’t bribery. You’re working for it.
To really answer this question, we need to look at why people are asking it to begin with. Overwhelmingly this type of rhetoric comes from other dog trainers, but not the positive reinforcement trainers. Instead, it comes from the ones who use old, outdated, and quite literally poor methods to train dogs. These are the alpha trainers, the dominance-based trainers, and the so-called “balanced” trainers. These people often believe that dogs should do what we want when we want it because we are the dominant species.
Not a single one of these people will read a blog post and change their mind. They are too wrapped up in their ego to learn anything new, even if it means they’d be a better person and a better dog trainer. Heck, the majority of them won’t even change their minds when they see how well it works.
No, the people who can read something new and explore that idea to garner new knowledge and improve themselves are usually the pet parents like you, the ones who care so deeply for their pets that they couldn’t imagine harming them. Maybe they’ve experienced an alpha trainer and were told that treats don’t work so they came seeking the truth. These are the people who get it. They understand that if it feels wrong, it probably is wrong.
So, then, the real question comes down to this:
Won’t the behavior I’m training stops when the food stops?
No, and that’s actually the beauty of using food as a reward. Using a food reward isn’t just a thank you, it’s conditioning a behavior or action. Food is the best way (for most dogs) to accomplish this conditioning because of how food changes the brain. It actually helps your dog learn. Not only does it help your dog learn, but it also helps your dog to overcome fear and anxiety by overriding those signals in the brain. It increases the dopamine in the brain. That’s how strong of a motivator food can be.
This is also why we reward so much during socialization because we are wiring a dog’s brain to associate lots of different people, places and objects with a positive outcome… getting that food reward. Turning on the thinking brain turns off the emotional brain.
Using a high-value reward, my go-to is boiled chicken or cut-up freeze-dried chicken hearts, we condition a behavior or action. Over time, as your dog’s response becomes more reliable, we can reward intermittently, slowly decreasing the number of times we reward for the same thing at first.
It’s good practice to reward your dog throughout their lifetime, but once your dog has behavior or action down reliably, we can reward more sporadically. Any time your dog seems to have taken a step back in training, or doesn’t respond as you thought they would, we too should take a step back and become a bit more consistent with the reward. It’s a good indication that we moved too fast in reducing the reward structure.
It’s also worth noting that while many dogs are highly food motivated, some dogs may be more motivated by play or toys, and it is perfectly ok to use your dogs’ favorite form of currency to train.
When your dog has a positive and pleasurable outcome associated with an event or behavior, they are much more likely to repeat it.