Treats aren’t working! Part 2: Rewarding “Bad” Behavior

fearful dogs reactive dogs May 04, 2021
Dog with paw over face

Last week we talked about one reason your training with treats might not be working.  Your dog can be motivated to work for treats,  and to bark and growl to make something go away, at the same time!

This week, we’re looking at a second possible reason for being stuck in training.  Sometimes, we accidentally reinforce our dog’s “bad” behavior with treats. How does this happen? 


How do we accidentally reinforce “bad” behavior? 

There are two common ways of attempting to change a fearful or reactive dog’s behavior.  One is training alternative behaviors (like “look at me”) around your dog’s triggers.  The other is counter-conditioning, or pairing the trigger with good stuff.  In either case, you use a reinforcer, like treats, around the thing the your dog reacts negatively to.  Treats can be a powerful reinforcer for dogs, so why isn’t the training working? 

If your dog growls or barks at a trigger, what do you do?   If you’re doing counter-conditioning, you would give them treats.  If you’re training an alternative behavior, you might get your dog’s attention, ask for the desired behavior, and then give treats. Either way, growling and barking are followed by treats, and so might be reinforced.  

 So one reason that your treats might not be working to fix problem behavior is that they’re actually reinforcing the problem behavior!  


How to tell if you’re accidentally reinforcing “bad” behavior?  

If you are giving your dog treats after they behave in a way you don’t like, you could be reinforcing your dog’s problem behavior.  If you think this might be going on in your training, you can do a little experiment.  Continue training as you have been, and record every instance of “bad” behavior for a week or so.  Then, stop giving your dog treats after they react to a trigger for a week, and see if you measure a decrease in problem behavior over the week.  If you see a decrease, it could be because you were reinforcing the problem behavior with treat



How to fix it if you’re reinforcing “bad” behavior with treats? 

If you think training with treats isn’t working because your treats are reinforcing the wrong behaviors, here are some things to try:

1) Train farther away from the trigger, if your dog is more likely to react negatively to nearby triggers.  Avoiding the bad behavior in the first place means you can’t accidentally reinforce it. 

2)  Delay giving treats after your dog reacts negatively to something. Unfortunately, there might be no way to avoid reinforcing your dog’s “bad” behavior once it happens.  Even if you don’t give treats, the “trigger” moving away could act as a reinforcer.  This is why #1 above is so important. 

 If you try any of these suggestions and like them- or don’t like them!- we’d love to hear from you.  Join our Facebook group and post your questions or comments there, or reach out to us by email at [email protected]

If you're looking for more guidance with your fearful dog, check out our monthly training membership.