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.

Why Michael’s Dogs is coming off Facebook


Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA


“The problem with Facebook is Facebook”

– Siva Vaidhyanathan – Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects us and Undermines Democracy.


I’ve known about the inherent problems with Facebook for quite a while. I’m a student of behavior, human behavior especially. Social media, primarily Facebook and Twitter, have been implicated in ginning up conflict in a number of very significant incidents ranging from clashes in Sri Lanka to genocide in Myanmar to our own elections. I was never active on Twitter. My decision to leave Facebook as been more than a year in the making.

I already know that some of you (maybe a lot) will get all riled up that I’m posting this. Stay in your lane. Right? We don’t want anything that even hints at politics on a dog trainer’s blog. I get it. Stay with me, though. There’s a training connection here.

Social media platforms use artificial intelligence (AI) to build, maintain, and update their algorithms. Algorithms are the complicated programs that control what we see and in what order on sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. They are designed to keep us engaged, to keep us on the site longer. Facebook and YouTube have the most robust algorithms and the most advanced AI. Keeping us humans engaged in social media is interestingly similar to how we keep our dogs engaged in learning. Reinforcement. We all know dogs who will bring us the ball endlessly so long as we keep throwing it (some of us have those dogs). Many are so hooked they will retrieve until they fall over from exhaustion. Ball throwing reinforces the persistent behavior even to the dogs potential detriment.

What reinforces our behavior on social media? Many of us check our phones as frequently as a half dozen times an hour. And we spend hours “doom scrolling.” Hours. What reinforces that persistent (and potentially detrimental) behavior? It would be hard for us humans to figure out on our own. But artificial intelligence can do it very quickly. With billions of data points available, AI can adjust social media algorithms on-the-fly to feed us exactly the  content that will keep us engaged, keep us watching, keep us posting, (and sometimes viewing their ads).

Folks tell me all the time that their dogs like this treat or that one. My reply is almost always the same. I don’t want to know what your dog likes. I want to know what he will work for. I like dog training videos. I like inspirational memes (really, I’m that guy). Heck, I like some of your vacation photos. But, what will we humans work for? What keeps us commenting and replying to comments over and over? What engages social media users and keeps them coming back for more? The research points to one thing conclusively: anger. “Studies of Twitter and Facebook have repeatedly found the same,” writes Max Fisher in The Chaos Machine, “though researchers have narrowed the effects from anger in general to moral outrage specifically.”

Humans evolved to operate in groups of usually 150 or less. Moral outrage, the indignation over a group member’s perceived wrongdoing, kept us moving forward. We would rally as a community fueled by moral outrage and, presumably, the errant group member would fall back into line. It was a cohesive adaptation. The problem is that moral outrage becomes fracturing, even violent, when it’s cranked up in thousands or even millions of people at once (well beyond the 150 we are build for). Moral outrage is what feeds social media and then social media feeds it back to us. It keeps us turned on. It keeps them in business.

Did social media executives figure out this is how we tick? Maybe. But, it’s more likely they just told the AI to get them more users and more engagement. The algorithm did the rest. Our behavior trained the AI and then it trained us.  It’s like when we ask “Am I training my dog or is he training me?” The answer is yes. That’s how learning works. It’s cooked into the system, which is why Siva Vaidhyanathan wrote “The problem with Facebook is Facebook.” This isn’t something social media does. This is what social media is.

Moral outrage is not new for us dog trainers. It’s an old joke. The one thing two dog trainers can agree on is that the third one is wrong. It’s worse than that, though. Those of us who use positive reinforcement have vilified those who use punishment, and vice versa. It’s played out on social media in various forms over the years. Admittedly I’ve participated, posting dog behavior blogs and pithy memes of my own. We take a jab at them. They take a jab at us. And, the algorithms notice. Over time the posts we see most frequently on social media are about how terrible they are. Researchers have found that posts with keywords associated with moral outrage perform the best. So moral outrage is what we see and moral outrage is what we feel.

Fisher: “This creates powerful incentives for what philosopher Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke have termed moral grandstanding – showing off that you are more outraged, and therefore more moral, than everyone else.” One well known trainer went so far as to proclaim there is a crisis in dog training. Others rallied around him in a vibrant display of virtue posturing. “The effect scales,” Fisher writes, “people express more outrage, and demonstrate more willingness to punish the underserving, when they think their audience is bigger. And there is no bigger audience on earth than Twitter and Facebook.”

Another well known trainer, in perhaps an unrelated move, decided to reach out to a renown colleague who uses punishment. The idea seemed reasonable enough. Have a conversation, record it, post it on social media. But, the problem with social media is social media. Though a majority of people (trainers are people) will say they support open dialogue and cooperation, social media algorithms don’t amplify their voices. They amplify moral outrage. When this trainer crossed the line to publicly engage a colleague on the other side, the outrage was swift and vociferous. At best, from a distance, it was annoying. Up close, for those involved, it was ugly. Livelihoods were threatened. Careers were tarnished. This hit close to home. I know these people. I like them. Social media companies banked a dollar or two over it (maybe), a drop in the bucket. No one in Silicon Valley noticed, of course. It all played out on server farms.

We trainers talk a fair amount about how dogs are now in environments that don’t match their evolution. We can make a good case for that. Dogs bred to sprint and scent and scavenge are cooped up in suburban homes. Trainers and behavior consultants can help with that. But what about us? Aren’t we also now in an environment beyond our evolutionary boundaries? Big social media is less than 20 years old. We don’t adapt that quickly. What if we are hard wired to have 150 connections? I have more than 5,000 on facebook, most of whom I will never meet. Moral outrage has its function. But what do we do when it’s manipulated in the pursuit of money, when we are manipulated, when we become the product to boost the corporate bottom line – our suffering be damned.

People in Myanmar were given free access to the internet under one condition. They had to access it through Facebook. Facebook picked up the tab, just a cost of doing business in a new market. After the genocide Facebook pointed to their trope about the greater good, connecting humanity. We have to wonder, though; connecting whom, and how, and to what end?

A few of my friends and colleagues have said they’ll miss me on Facebook. They emailed. Some texted. So far they number fewer than 150. I assured them we are still connected. No one else commented. There was no cause for outrage. It was nice. It was just us humans connecting. Humanity at last.

Michael teaches aggressive dog training in Houston, TX and is a constant student of behavior. He’s reachable by email:

What is a Cue vs. a Command in Dog Training


Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Language is important. The words we choose help us express ourselves clearly. They also help us better understand our own mindset and intentions. This is certainly true in dog training when we compare the words cue and command.

A command is compulsory and insists. A cue is an opportunity and invites. Commands often come with the threat of do-it-or-else. A cue is an open door to earn reinforcement. Let’s take a closer look.

In dog training, commands are quickly becoming outdated. They were words, usually issued in a harsh or “commanding” tone. The dog’s failure to choose the right behavior often resulted in a physical punishment. If a dog continued to stand when commanded to sit, he would get an upward jerk on the leash until he sat. A dog who dawdled when commanded to come would suffer a shock until he ran toward the trainer (alternatively he’d get a jerk to the neck from a long leash). Dogs had to do what they were commanded or they would suffer the consequence.

Modern dog trainers use positive reinforcement and cues. A cue is a word, phrase, or visual signal that indicates reinforcement is available if the dog chooses the behavior associated with that cue. We can teach a dog that when we say “come,” if he walks or runs to us, he gets a bit of the food we are carrying in our treat pouch. In fact, we can teach him that he only gets the food if we’ve said that word. He can wander over on his own, but the behavior is only reinforced when we cue it. Trainers call this stimulus control.

Maybe some human examples will make the difference between a command and a cue more clear.

The green light at an intersection is a cue. It signals that the reinforcement of forward movement is available. The light does not command us to go. There is no looming punishment if we don’t. Though one could argue that the honk from the guy behind us is more of a punishing command.

Here’s another one. The bell of an elevator arriving is a cue that the reinforcement of boarding and reaching our destination is available. The bell does not command us to get on. There’s no compulsion. Nothing pushes us in. The floor outside the elevator doesn’t electrify if we don’t step through the door.

The message indicator on your phone is a cue, that red number next to the icon. If we press the right spot, reinforcement is available. We do this all day long. But, this one is a bit different because sometimes the behavior is reinforcing (a nice message from a friend, a love interest, or an opportunity from our boss or client). Sometimes the message can be punishing, though (a complaint form an angry spouse for instance). The cue in this case works only if pressing the icon is reinforcing enough times to keep the behavior going. Otherwise, we become one of those people with a hundred unread messages.

Commands come from authority. They are usually stress inducing. Police lights in the rear view mirror are a command to pull over. Military officers and government officials issue commands.

Cues come from collaborators. They are often reassuring. A nod from a friend keeps a conversation going. Actors take cues on a stage from fellow players.

The question here isn’t whether one is more effective than the other, a cue or a command. They can both work. The real question is for those of us on the receiving end. Do you want to be cued or commanded? Door number one or door number two? That’s a cue. Or, get through that (explitive) door right now! That’s a command. Which do your prefer? Which do you think your dog might want?


Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston Texas. He specializes in aggressive dog training and fear-related behavior problems.