Dog Training: Bribe vs. Reinforcement


Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Using food in training is not the same as bribing your dog.

First of all, a bribe is primarily a human transaction. It’s a promise of a future renumeration for something the bribed will do now or very soon. Bribes are nefarious dirty deeds. You bribe politicians, not dogs. Dogs don’t think that far ahead and politicians … well, I’ll leave that alone.

Semantics aside, I get it. Some folks seem to be very concerned that their dog is “doing it for the food.” Of course all of us work for money and I’m not above doing a bit of work for sushi or an iced latte. That seems to be okay. Work for free? Anyone? Anyone? I doubt it. But, a lot of us get downright  insulted if our dog won’t work for free. We want her to do it “just because it’s me.” Why? I don’t know. That question might be better left to an expert in human behavior.

In dog training our main concern is when the treat shows up.

  • Before the behavior. We show the food ahead of the thing we are asking our dog to do. Think: calling our dog to us as we crinkle the treat bag. Or, cueing our dog to sit with food in our hand. Okay. If we are speaking in the vernacular we could call that a bribe. We are showing the food out front. Generally this is not the way to go. Though there is a notable exception I’ll explain below.
  • After the behavior. The dog does the thing, whatever the thing is, and we follow up by giving her a bit of food. The food lets the dog know the behavior pays. Do more of it. That’s called reinforcement. Sit – treat – more sitting. It’s how nature works.

The notable exception. Our dogs rarely know what we want at first. One reliable way to teach a new behavior is to lure the dog into the action or position. This does involve showing her the food ahead of the behavior. Good trainers (and you’re a good trainer) plan to get the food lure out of the mix as soon as possible and focus only on reinforcing the behavior after it occurs.

All that said, is our dog just doing it for the food? Probably. Some behavior goes away very quickly if we drop the food altogether, especially if there are competing motivators.

Is our dog always just doing it for the food? No, not always. The world is full of reinforcers, some stronger than others. It’s up to us as trainers to stay creative and see what our dog will work for. What motivates her? Food? Play? Access to other dogs? Keep exploring the possibilities. Keep the conversation with your dog going. It’s how we build trusting relationships. It’s how we end up with dogs who are eager to learn new things with us just because it’s us.


Michael Baugh is a dog trainer in Houston, TX. He specializes in aggressive dog training.