Dog training in the real world

man seated surrounded by dogsI’m thinking about the comments I read or hear from people criticizing trainers as ‘cookie pushers’ or some other derogatory term they’ve come up with for reward-centric trainers. It dawned on me that if you don’t know what you are looking at, you might very well just see someone feeding dogs treats. But as with anything else, the more you understand and learn about something, the more appreciation you have for it. My cousin travels around the world tasting coffee. Give him a cup and he can pick out ‘tones’ and acidity levels, and can probably even tell you where it was grown. Give me a cup and I’ll thank you and look for the muffin to go with it.

When I am with my dogs and any boarder dogs I might look like nothing more than a treat vending machine, if you were not aware of my agenda. Daphne the guest dog stops and looks at me while we are out walking in the woods, that earns her a bit of kibble so she’ll continue to check in with me. When Bugsy approaches me and Sunny is nearby, Sunny gets a treat so I can work on changing how he feels about the old coot. Finn practically begs me to let him practice heeling when he’s off leash and why wouldn’t I want to provide a border collie with the chance to show off what he can do? While the dogs splash in the river I call each by name and toss them a treat so they look at me and practice having a positive emotional response when they hear me say their name.

Do I sometimes dole out treats just because I think a dog is too darn cute. Sometimes but even then I wait for eye contact or ask for a ‘sit’. Every interaction I have with a dog gives me the chance to let them know how I feel about their behavior.

“Ooh that’s a nice recall!”

“No need to get bent out of shape when another dog comes near your toy.”

“Better if you don’t pull away when I reach for your collar.”

“So nice to have you wait until I say you can go when I open the gate.”

If you see me with a bunch of dogs and think I’m just handing out treats for the heck of it, you’d be missing the subtle undertones of a cheery relationship, with minimal acidity, and a pleasant after taste.

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32 comments so far

  1. Crystal on

    Your opening sentence amuses me because my friends and I call ourselves “cookie pushers” as a point of pride.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Cookie pusher and proud!

      • Crystal (and Maisy) on

        This needs to be a shirt.

      • fearfuldogs on

        And a bumper sticker!

      • Crystal (and Maisy) on

        But… but… my husband said I could only put one dog bumper sticker on the car!

      • Katie, Maizey and Magnus on

        Here Here! We should the cookie pushers club.;) I must admit though if you don’t know someone’s criteria it can be hard to spot what they are rewarding. The hubby loves the ‘cookie pushing method,’ but even for him when I am shaping something new he’s like, “What did you just click?” It’s hard to explain when you are paying for a rear foot move of and inch.LOL

        Hey crystal-what’s the husbands and not wanting bumper stickers? Mine is the same way and I know at least one other that objects too. Weirdo’s.LOL

      • Crystal (and Maisy) on

        Katie, my husband says that one bumper sticker is expressing your opinion, and more than that is an advertisement that you’re a crazy dog lady. Yeah, about that, honey…

  2. Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart on

    Ahh … the assumptions we make at times. I’m sure people think all kinds of things when they see me and Lilly in public, with lots of bait bag activity.

    I’ve actually been criticized by R+ trainers for continuing to use food with Lilly. :o)

    • fearfuldogs on

      Just because someone doesn’t know what our criteria is for our dog, doesn’t mean we don’t!

  3. Kristine on

    Thank you for this. I have actually been stopped on the street and told that my “bribing” of my dog was going to create a monster. All I could do was walk away shaking my head. If I had not been rewarding my dog at that exact moment for her calm behaviour, she may have looked like a monster to him.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Funny isn’t it that all that collar yanking is often credited with creating a ‘good’ dog. Good luck with your dog, sounds as if she is lucky to be with you.

    • melfr99 on

      Wow Kristine. I am constantly amazed with people’s “firm” beliefs in how a dog should be trained. My only firm belief is “do no harm” – treats are not even a worry! Your dog IS lucky to have you!

  4. thelittlebeardogblog on

    I’ve never heard the term before, but what a great phrase! So much better than the alternative too – what are they? Hurt pushers? Yuck! I’ll be a cookie, cheese, roast chicken, smoked salmon and kibble pusher and be proud of it. Thanks for the inspiring post 🙂

  5. Pat Schmidt on

    I loved your post. I work with rescue dogs, some from puppy mills that are very afraid. It takes lots of treats before they are comfortable enough to look at me or come for a tummy rub but the treats get them there.If anyone has a training method that works better than a piece of liver with garlic I’d like to hear it! I do whatever it takes to build confidence in a dog that is scared of his or her own shadow! If that means 30 treats a dog so be it!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment Pat. I will put in a plug for canned Easy Cheese (I own no stock in Kraft!). MMmmmm…maybe a dab on a piece of liver.

    • melfr99 on

      Pat – I am with you. Being my puppy mill dog is a Lab, food was what started us on the process to making eye contact and eventually building trust. I’m proud to be a cookie-pusher (and I never even knew I was before this post!)!

  6. honeysjourney on

    And it’s confirmed by the talk given by Dr. Robert Sapolsky, you had in a previous post linked to,reward (treat)based training causes dopamine to flow. Dopamine flow =s happiness.

    I just bought a new 5 pound bag of treats yesterday.

  7. Debbie Jacobs on

    That’s nice George, hope you got something for the dogs too! 😉

  8. melfr99 on

    Thanks for this post Debbie. I used to help out in Canine U at our shelter. Every once in a while I would hear some dog owner say they didn’t believe in using treats. I personally don’t get it. What is the issue? I think too many of us dog owners view ourselves as Lord and Master instead of friend and companion. I want a well-trained dog, but I don’t believe one has to use aversive methods to do so. Treats are a great way to mark a behavior I want. What can be wrong with that?

    • Debbie on

      It’s like saying I don’t believe in using keys to start a car. Umm it’s how cars start and dogs learn when rewarded for behaviors. Such a simple system really 😉

  9. mary on

    I’m new to your blog and very glad I found it. I love the “cookie pusher” thing. Me too. Me too. A few years ago a friend and I were chatting about dog training on the phone and I mentioned using cookies to solidify a response from a dog. He was silent for half a second and told me in a deeply disapproving voice that he preferred that his dog do what he was told for praise only and indicated that any other approach was somehow “less” than real dog training.

    I then briefly explained how food improves the connection between cue and behavior and that I phased the cookies out with each behavior when it was automatic. I also pointed out that my dogs were no less loyal than his and no less anxious to be close to me and please me. It only sort of silenced him.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Hi Mary, nice of you to join us! We’ve got a beautiful choir going on here, always nice to add another voice.

  10. fearfuldogs on

    Well Crystal, if the shoe fits!

    • Crystal (and Maisy) on

      I think my husband is in denial. Although that must take a lot of work, all things considered. I mean, I bought my new car not because I liked it, but because of the dog-related potential. It doesn’t get much more obsessed than that.

  11. Helen on

    We have been through 4 levels of training using positive reinforcement and I could not be happier with the results so I will never look negatively at the idea of treat giving. A year after getting Spike and Dru as puppies, I have two very well behaved, well socialized (both human and canine), licensed Therapy Dogs who are heading to their first therapy visit next week.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and commenting Helen. Good luck with your therapy visit. Let us know how it goes. Until you’ve trained a dog using R+ techniques and see the responsiveness and enthusiasm for learning new skills, it’s hard to describe how cool it feels. Spike and Dru were lucky pups!

  12. Viatecio on

    As someone who incorporates collar corrections (and hence, training collars that sometimes make people give me nasty looks), I don’t call what you describe in this entry “cookie pushing.”

    You’re creating positive associations and rewarding good behavior. I see nothing wrong with that. I do it plenty myself, sometimes with treats, but more often than not, without. I think what gets people is that they don’t see me giving my dogs a treat, and as such, think that my dog isn’t getting the reward it deserves. She doesn’t work for food…doesn’t mean she won’t, but it’s used a little more sparingly than most “reward-based” trainers prefer.

    (And with that said, no trainer will claim to ever be “punishment-based,” and it’s sad that some are referred to in that way in order to make others feel good about themselves. We ALL know that overkill creates shutdown and resistance.)

    I just call it “bribery” when the owner comes to DEPEND on that treat in order to make the dog follow a command. I’m sure it happens more with owners than the trainers who actually know what they’re doing, but rest assured I’ve met some who call themselves trainers who must still bribe their dogs to do such simple things as a sit or down. This is not training, and we all know that. Perhaps this is where “cookie-pushing” has gone awry, and the unfortunate extent to which I see this happening is what’s causing the backlash against the term. Just a thought on that matter!

    With the exception of a few situations–aggression comes to mind, also rehabbing a fearful dog…you know, extreme behavior cases–No matter the “method” used, the tool applied, or the ego stroked, if the dog isn’t responsive and enthusiastic, walking with a spring in its step, a smile on its face, a wagging tail and the willingness to respond to a command the first time in the face of distraction (all of which are some things people tend to overlook when they happen to notice the training collar around my dog’s neck), then we seriously need to re-evaluate how we’re working with that dog!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading. It is true that when we are working with aggression and fear (the behaviors often manifestations of the same emotional response-fear) we need to be on high alert and pay attention to the dog’s response to whatever we do to or with them.

      Unfortunately many people are woefully unaware of how to interpret their dog’s behavior and body language. Experienced, professional and good trainers can employ a variety of techniques and likely have success. It is the arm chair trainer who is often at risk of creating more serious problems when they use punishment with their dog. Correcting the fall-out of punishment gone awry can be challenging. I hear from many folks who are trying to ‘clean-up’ after using punishment to work with their fearful/aggressive dog.

      While the risks of using rewards as bribes can also create problem behaviors, they rarely seem to include an increase in a dangerous to people or other animal, response.

      I appreciate you taking the time to respond.

  13. Viatecio on

    I fully agree that people are so often unaware of their dog’s body language, even the basic ones. It’s so frustrating that people out there think that hey, the goggy’s tail is wagging, it must be friendly! Or look, it’s sniffing noses with the other goggies…and then when their dog snarks out, “He’s never done that before, I didn’t imagine he’d do it!” It’s not just the armchair trainer, it’s a lot of Joe Q Public dog owners out there.

    As for overusing corrections, rest assured that I am as angry with those people as you are.

    If it’s not done quickly, immediately after the infraction, motivationally and immediately over with the dog ready for redirection, it shouldn’t even be done. Timing is the biggest issue, and I’m amazed that, once people learn to time rewards (maybe with the help of a clicker so they can HEAR the positive), they still have trouble stepping in immediately and saying “No.” And then, when they DO give a correction, it’s too hard (shutdown), too light (no change in behavior), or just plain inconsistent.

    Done right, it can help a dog immensely.

    Done wrong, well, we’ve all seen fallout from that.

    As an aside, since someone suggested the bumper sticker with “Cookie pusher and proud of it” (or something to that effect) as a way of laughing at labels, I’m wondering if it would be appropriate for me to poke fun at myself with a “Punishment-based Trainer and Proud of it” sticker 🙂

    Just a thought while we’re on topic.

  14. rangerskat on

    This post made me laugh out loud. I was describing myself as a treat delivery system on my walk with Finna this morning. Run a little ways visit the treat delivery system run some more another visit to the TDS, more running, another TDS stop. Hey, it got us down the street with no melt downs or freak outs even past the scary house with the reactive dogs who yell (bark) obscenities at us. And, it combined two of her favorite things, running and food. I can’t run for very long at a satisfying pace but I can deliver treats for every check in and for stopping when I need to and for… I will use whatever works and if that makes me a cookie pusher I’ll be proud to wear the label.


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