"How long should I use treats for reinforcement?"
This is a question that gets asked a lot when training dogs. Obviously you don't want to ever have to be reliant on treats whenever you need to ask your dog to do something. Many a positive trainer has weighed in on how best to ensure your dog's behaviour be reliable regardless of whether you have a pocketful of chicken or not. I feel like there's another question underneath the first, which is,
"How long should I be reinforcing to my dog?"
People use treats for dog training because they are a primary reinforcer, that is, they are intrinsically valuable to a dog. They all need to eat, and most enjoy eating a great deal. But food is not the only reinforcer available to you -- there's play, praise, access to the environment and more. I almost always start training with food due to its intrinsic strength, but if food was the only reinforcer available in a trainer's arsenal then the trainer would find themselves very limited indeed.
The way I look at training is that you use a high level of reinforcement to lay the groundwork for behaviours, ideally so much so that they become ingrained in a dog's behavioural patterns. For instance, when I ask my girl to sit she complies almost instantly, and almost subconsciously -- we have done so many drills that compliance is almost guaranteed. Once that initial groundwork is laid then I'm granted more variety in the way which I choose to approach reinforcement, but I will always. reinforce. my dog.
There is a constant mathematical formula running in my head evaluating where my dog is being reinforced and by how much. (Remember, behaviour that is reinforced is more likely to be repeated.) Is going after that scrap of garbage more rewarding than listening to me? What about running after that squirrel? What about that small child smeared with icecream? The jogger? The puppy? These mental calculations may sound like a lot of work, but they're easier than they seem, especially with practice.
This is where training and having a good relationship with your dog really shines. Training is the ultimate bonding experience. It teaches both you and your dog to communicate with one another and strengthens that special relationship that exists between a person and their four-legged best friend.
As you spend more quality time with your dog you become intrinsically rewarding to them. Your dog will look to you for guidance and feedback because that is the pattern you've created over the months and years of hard work. If your pup is anything like mine, it will enjoy spending time with you and earning your attention because listening to you is both entertaining and fun. And if your pup is not like mine yet you can certainly create this type of relationship if you're dedicated to building it.
This to me is the true payoff for training. All those long hours spent running drills for off-leash recalls and heeling eventually pay off by teaching both you and your dog how to listen to each other, and more importantly, enjoy doing so. My presence is rewarding to my dog, just the same way her presence is rewarding to me.
So, let's again look at the question, "How long should I be reinforcing for my dog?" By now I'm sure it's obvious what my answer is. You should plan to always be reinforcing to your dog.
When you first get your unruly puppy it might be tough to win out over all the distractions of the world without waving a piece of tripe in front of your dog's nose. You'll find yourself frustrated and wondering if you'll have to rely on these methods forever. But through being consistent and building up a positive relationship with your dog (one free of intimidation and physical punishment) you'll find that less and less you'll have to struggle to keep your dog's attention. It's a beautiful day when you realize that your dog is voluntarily giving you its attention because it wants to, and enjoys doing so. Building this reaction is a lifelong process, and is probably the most worthwhile pursuit in building a relationship with your dog.
Of course, everyone enjoys the occasionally cookie too.