One of the most common questions I'm asked is "when can I stop rewarding my dog"? The topic of increasing behaviour is complex but my simple answer is never. Here's why.
When we use food in training, our goal is to have the dog repeat that particular behaviour in the future. If sitting reliably produces a cookie, they're likely to continue the sitting behaviour in order to gain access to cookies in the future. Rewarded behaviour gets repeated.
The process of increasing a behaviour is called reinforcement. And reinforcement drives behaviour.
All animals (humans included) behave in ways that are likely to produce positive outcomes, or avoid negative ones. Whether you love or hate your job, you keep going back because the behaviour of going to work has been reinforced by past outcomes.
We learn early on that if we go to work, we get paid. And money is a valuable and necessary currency for humans to survive. If not money, maybe the positive outcome is personal fulfilment or social interactions that keep you going back week after week.
Whatever your reason is for showing up, how would your behaviour change if that reinforcer was no longer available? If your pay was cut in half or your work bestie got fired? What if you were transferred to a boring position or your desk was moved into a broom closet?
Your going to work behaviour will likely decrease. Maybe not right away but over time, because reinforcement drives behaviour.
Every night I chaperone Hank on his walk down the road. His recall is reliable, he pays no mind to people, cars, bikes and dogs. Usually.
But over the last few weeks I've noticed changes in Hank's behaviour. His recall has been lagging, he's been going farther ahead of me than normal and he's been showing a lot of interest in the one and only house we pass by standing and staring; not only responding to "let's go" on his terms. He even went half way up the driveway and showed no response to my calls for a full 30 seconds. I don't love it.
So what changed? Hank has a strong history of getting rewarded for come, wait, stay and let's go, which means he's likely to do it. But I've been asking him to disengage from something valuable (the environment) for nothing more than a "good job" lately. Coming to me has also produced some negative outcomes for him. I've had to leash him several times. A screaming child went by on their bike, a strange dog was being dragged and yelled at by their owner and a dirt bike flew past us and almost hit me. Those stressful events were made more stressful by me frantically clipping the leash (and maybe yelling at some folks).
Hank wasn't being stubborn or bad. He was being a normal dog. A normal animal. He's not going to do what I ask 100% of the time just because I said so. That's not how life works.
So to change things, I brought food with me on walks. Before we got to the driveway I got his attention and gave him the opportunity to heel and eat cheese instead of trespassing (which he happily did). I asked for some easy recalls and added in some chase games to reinforce it. And I put the leash on, gave some food, took it back off again a few times.
Now we're back to normal. He just needed a reason to make the choice I wanted him to make. So while you can can and should fade out food for many different behaviours in many different scenarios, remember that knowing how to do something and having the motivation to do it are very different. Behaviour doesn't occur in a vacuum and it's important to understand that the environment, emotions and other conditions will affect it.
Everything happens for a reason and when it comes to dogs being nuisances or getting into trouble, that reason may be a lack of enrichment. Enrichment means meeting all of your dog's needs and giving them the time and space to perform natural behaviours in an appropriate way.
For months I've been using a small garbage bin under my desk and most days there's a protein bar wrapper or two in there. Everyone is free to access the bin at any time but no one ever has. Until last night. I was watching TV and heard some rustling noises. I looked up and saw that Hazel had one of those wrappers.
I wasn't mad or annoyed, I was surprised and felt a little guilty. Why? Because I knew that Hazel's behaviour was a direct result of her needs not being met. The behaviour wasn't the problem, but the item she selected was. As her guardian, meeting her needs might be the most important job I have and I missed the mark.
Instead of leaping into action and hollering "NO! or "LEAVE IT! " when our dogs get a hold of something "bad", we can pause and ask questions if the item doesn't pose an immediate danger. What are they actually doing? And what's the likely reason for the behaviour? Especially if it's out of character for them to get into things.
What Hazel was doing was licking and shredding the wrapper. Why was she doing it?
Licking and shredding are normal, healthy canine behaviours. As are foraging and scavenging. It's very likely that while Hazel was foraging, she came across the wrapper and decided it was valuable enough to scavenge.
Looking back at the last day or so here was what I noted.
Next I went online to reorder cheese bones and made a note to replenish my supply of cheap stuffies. I also adjusted my schedule to take her for a hike.
It's unfair and unethical to be mean to your dog because you don't like the choices they make. It's not their job to manage their environment. It's yours. So now that the garbage bin has become a viable option for reinforcement for Hazel, I have to move it or take my wrappers to the kitchen garbage.
If Hazel's needs are met, she spends her evenings going between chewing a cheese bone, asking for pets and napping. If she isn't able to access these activities, she's going to be a dog and do dog things like poking around the basement looking for things to satisfy her needs and make her feel good.
Enrichment isn't giving your dog a Kong stuffed with peanut butter and kibble in their crate so they can "relax". It's not putting some yogurt or pumpkin on a lick mat to "calm" them to stop them from bugging you. And it's certainly not handing them a plastic puzzle with some liver treats so they can "mentally stimulate" themselves.
Enrichment requires that you truly get to know your dog. Learn how to interpret what they do and why they do it. Not just what they like and dislike, you know what they NEED and how to deliver it. In return you get less nuisance behaviour and less "bad" behaviour over all.