Can You Stop a Behavior with Rewards?



Rewards based training is used to stop unwanted behaviors all the time! From complex aggression and fear problems, to leash walking, recall issues, to dog sports like agility, and even police work, rewards are used successfully to influence behavior. And the animal that is being influenced doesn’t even have to be a dog, zoos train their animals to cooperate with basic care, and all of it is done with rewards.

If a tiger can be taught to stand still for blood draws, vaccinations, and other medical checks and care, all with rewards, there is no reason we can’t teach a dog behaviors using the same techniques. Which includes stopping unwanted behaviors. 

Rewards and Bad Behavior

I hear misconceptions about this a lot. It’s easy to misunderstand a thing if you don’t have foundation knowledge about it!

The truth is that unwanted behaviors are already rewarding to the dog. This is why they persist. Dogs only do things that they find rewarding or that they get some benefit from. And this exact fact is why using rewards in training is the most effective way to train. We hijack this innate system in our dogs and use it to manipulate how they behave in a given situation. 


There are also many unwanted behaviors that come from emotional states in the dog. We can’t reward an emotion; giving an angry dog a treat will not make him more angry in the future or more likely to be so. This is true of all emotionally driven behaviors in dogs, especially ones like reactivity!

Rewards are used to very effectively shift how a reactive dog feels about their triggers, how a fearful dog might feel about the things they think are scary, and to reward the behaviors that we want to strengthen, which in turn weakens the unwanted behaviors.

But Then I'll Always Need Rewards

This is a common lament I hear from owners (and even have heard punishment based trainers use about rewards) and it’s just not true. Rewards are used in the learning process to help teach the dog the new habit and to keep that habit strong. Once the new behavior is habitual we change how we reward the dog and are no longer “always needing rewards”. In fact, when we switch to only rewarding a dog sometimes we are continuing to strengthen their new habit even more. So the idea that we will always need rewards is false.

The reality is that no type of training, whether rewards based or tool based, is absolute. Any animal, dogs included, will sometimes react in unpredictable or unexpected ways regardless of training. Surprises happen and there is no such thing as a fully reliable dog or behavioral guarantees. Our dogs are not machines, they are not perfect, but we can help them be more reliable and statistically likely to do what we’d like them to do.

In the teaching phase of training there will be a lot of treat use, but this is not forever and transitioning away from treats is also an important part of training your dog. 

Some dogs only listen if they know you have a treat!

This is not caused by using a rewards based training method, but instead is due to the incorrect application of those methods. Rewards used as bribes (which is incorrect) will cause the dog to become treat savvy, and actively be looking for rewards when asked to do something. 

This is a common mistake that owners make when trying to use rewards with their dogs and the nuance between bribery and payment is important to pay attention to when using treats. It is easy to make the mistake of bribing a dog to get them to do a thing, and that is not sustainable in the long run when we’re training. 

Instead we have to make sure that we’re waiting for completed behaviors before paying the dog. This way the pattern isn’t us showing the dog there is a treat involved at all, not until they are done doing what we are wanting to reward. No bribe and no falling into that habit in the first place. 

Training is give and take and that is one of the first things we want to teach the dog before we even start teaching them specific behaviors. It’s an interaction that works out for the dog If and only if they are behaving the way we’d like. If the dog doesn’t understand this, or hasn’t been taught this, falling into a bribery situation is easy where it’s no longer the human manipulating the dog, but the dog manipulating the human. 

Proper training patterns and foundation work will ensure that you don’t fall down the bribery hole and teach the dog that they should only do a thing when you’ve shown them the treat!

But How?

The first step is always taking a look at the whole picture. In my training programs that means using a wellness plan to address any stress points and prime the dog for learning. After all if the student isn’t ready to learn, or has things going on in their life that are adding extra stress, this is going to affect how they learn regardless of methods used. A wellness plan allows us to much more clearly see where the problem areas truly are because it helps remove obstacles that cause dogs to struggle in their modern day lives. 

Next comes the actual training. This is where we look at what the goals of the owner are, what the dog’s current behaviors look like, and assess which exercises and techniques are going to get us from A to B. For me this always starts with impulse control skills, since that is the foundation of everything else under the sun training wise. One of the biggest pieces of the puzzle here too is that it starts us on a training partnership from the very first lesson, not a relationship of conflict. 

The later details all build on these fundamentals and push the dog towards the owner’s goals by being strategic with our rewards. We actively reward the things we want more of and the unwanted behaviors will always fall away. Of course there is a lot more to it than just that, but in a nutshell that encompasses all training. Making the things we want from the dog desirable to them. That’s it! That’s the big secret. 

Fine tuning this all is where working with a trainer comes into play. It’s unique to every dog and their family, and something that is very hard to use DIY training with. At the same time there are simple facts that apply to all dogs, such as why a dog isn’t doing what they’re being asked to do! Navigating all of that is where working with a pro comes into play, and something that is always recommended when you’re struggling with your dog. 

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