Spare the Rod, Spoil the Dog?

What does it really mean to say that someone is “spoiling” their dog? This is a common accusation from those opposed to using food in training, and a common concern of owners who are first exploring the use of food to the exclusion of corrections in training.

“To spoil” means to:

1. diminish or destroy the value or quality of

2. harm the character of (a child) by being too lenient or indulgent

Excerpt from the Oxford Dictionary

A “spoiled” child is thought to have a false sense of over-entitlement. A child that feels that they deserve more than anyone else based solely on their “character,” leading presumably to an adult with poor work ethic and inflated ego.

And no one likes an adult with a poor work ethic and inflated ego, right?

So what does this mean for our dogs? Does it come down to being afraid of destroying the characters of our dogs by giving them treats? This resonates with common critiques of “treat training.” “Dogs will get grabby,” “dogs will work only if you show them a treat first,” even that dogs will “become aggressive if given treats.”

When we talk about “spoiling” a child we talk about the detrimental effects of not instilling good work ethic by bending to their every request and thus creating a non-functioning adult member of society.

When we talk about “spoiling” a dog, we talk about creating a pushy and demanding animal – and this discussion, as most do, quickly dissolves into accusations of “dominance.” In other words, a non-functioning canine member of society.

Two questions to ponder:

1. Is there a more productive way to frame the matter of “spoiling” a dog?
2. What of the underlying assumption that giving treats will “spoil” a dog?

Anthropomorphically speaking, “spoiling” or over-indulging a dog results in an over-entitled dog with an inflated ego who willfully disregards boundaries.

Behaviourally speaking, this is a matter of reinforcement contingencies and intermittent reinforcement creating resilient behaviour.

How behaviour is framed leads directly in to how behaviour is changed. If we see a dog as over-entitled, egotistical and “dominant” a common outcome is the implementation of ‘rank reduction’ strategies. This could be anything from utterly ridiculous and energy wasting rank reduction strategies to heavy-handed techniques such as alpha rolls and dominance downs.

If we understand problem behaviour as having a history of intermittent reinforcement we can then address it by looking at contingencies of reinforcement. What behaviour is your dog exhibiting? (This relies on well-informed observation skills) Can you find out what has reinforced that behaviour in the past and what is currently reinforcing it? (Sometimes this is not so obvious!) How can you control that reinforcer to prevent access to it contingent on the problem behaviour? (Not always easy to do…) Can you use that reinforcer contingent on a behaviour that you DO want your dog to do instead?

I’ve mentioned “intermittent reinforcement” a couple of times. Intermittent reinforcement is the key to resilient behaviour. It’s what makes it possible to “wean off” training treats. It’s what creates gambling addiction.

Let’s look at the oft used pop machine vs slot machine example:

A pop machine is a 1:1 ration of reinforcement. Coin goes in, pop comes out. If you put a coin in and no pop comes out you will hesitate to put more coins in the machine because you are expecting a pay off for every behaviour of “put coin in.” What’s the point of doing the behaviour if it doesn’t pay off?

On the other hand, slot machines work on an intermittent schedule of reinforcement. Coin goes in, nothing comes out. Coin goes in, nothing comes out. Coin comes in, COINS COME OUT!!!!! Coin goes in, nothing comes out… and so on. The unpredictability of this machine is what makes it addictive. No one would play a “coin goes in, coin comes out” slot machine. It would be boring. There would be no thrill of the chase, no ecstasy of the payout. Intermittent reinforcement strengthens behaviours to the point of a gambling addiction.

We can use this to our advantage by teaching a behaviour at a 1:1 ratio (because intermittent reinforcement works to strengthen only known behaviour!) and then switching to an intermittent schedule that can be increasingly thinned. This is how to build competition-worthy heeling or an incredible down-stay. This is how to teach a pigeon to peck a target an astonishing 300 times for one treat. Unfortunately, the same rules apply to unintentionally taught behaviours, such as demand barking, counter surfing, jumping up, etc. The dog learns the behaviour quickly and is reinforced occasionally. “But I hardly ever give into him!” laments the exasperated owner who is unsuspectingly building the strongest, most aggravating behaviours in their dogs.

We want our dogs to be “gambling addicts” for behaviours we like, but don’t like this affect on behaviours we don’t want. Too bad we can’t have it both ways!

The difference between character and behaviour is worthy of our consideration when debating whether giving treats will “spoil” a dog. “Who you are” versus “what you do.” And then we tip off the edge of the cliff into an ocean of philosophy! It is generally agreed that we can’t tell what is happening in a dog’s mind. We are not mind readers. We can’t ask a dog whether their mental processes are similar to that of people. This makes it difficult to comment on the nature of a dog’s character. Behaviour, on the other hand, is very observable. What is the dog doing? What external influences affect the dog’s behaviour?

Is it at all helpful to talk about “spoiling” a dog when the phrase rests so heavily on a something that is unobservable, unknowable? Looking at a dog’s behaviour, is it helpful to frame a simple matter of contingency and unintentional building of resilience as a matter of character or reflection thereof?

What it comes down to is that dogs will work to gain something of benefit to them or they will work to avoid something aversive (pain, fear, threat, pressure, etc.). If they never benefit from a behaviour, that behaviour will deteriorate and eventually extinguish. If the consequences of a behaviour are ambiguous – occasionally beneficial, occasionally no pay off, occasionally aversive – the potential benefit will be weighed against the potential risk. “Is it worth it? Should I give it a shot and see what happens?”

As trainers we need to shift the focus away from flimsy speculations of why a dog is behaving as it is – “He is spoiled.” “He is dominant.” or one I just heard, “he has manipulation aggression.” – and instead look at what in the environment is reinforcing undesirable behaviour, preventing this reinforcement, and teaching a socially-appropriate behaviour to take it’s place. If owners are taught to see “bad manners” as a function of environmental reinforcement they will have a solid base of understanding on which to problem solve future issues – or better yet prevent them!