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Breaking Treat Blackmail

"Watch this, the dog has me trained." I watched as Larry picked up a treat and asked Kelsey to jump on his lap. Kelsey complied. "Now watch this." Larry put her down and set a handful of treats on the table next to him. He again asked Kelsey to jump on his lap. Kelsey looked at Larry and cocked her head as if she didn't understand. He said, "I can't even fake her out." He pretended to pick up a treat and asked her to jump up. Kelsey again cocked her head and looked at him intently. "Now watch." Larry picked up the treat off the table and told Kelsey up. She immediately jumped on his lap.

Many dog owners and dog trainers have found treats a great way to train a dog, however, some dogs, like Kelsey, have figured out how to blackmail their owners when it comes to getting treats. A look at how and why treats are used, and how to maintain control is useful for training.

Know the treat training rules.

A tasty reward can capture a dog's attention and help reinforce wanted behavior. Most trainers have a specific pattern to using treats successfully. They start by rewarding a dog all the time while the dog is learning a new behavior. Once the dog understands a command, the dog is weaned off the continual use of a treat. This process is called "fading" the treat.

When you start training something new, it is fine to give the dog a treat every time it performs the task. For instance, you can ask the dog to sit, then offer a treat to get the dog's attention or lure it into a sit. When the dog sits, give the dog a treat and some praise. After the dog starts understanding the sit command, fade the treat by offering the treat every other time, but keep giving praise every time. After a few successful lessons, go to every third time for the treat. Finally, just use praise intermittently for the reward, and only occasionally give a treat.

Take control by making the dog do more than one task for each treat.

If you find you have a dog that won't wean off the treat, a dog that has figured out how to run "treat blackmail," you will need extra training to wean them off the treat. To retake control of using the treat as a reward, train the dog it needs to do more than one task for each reward. To do this, first show the dog the treat, then ask the dog to sit. However, before you give over the treat, ask the dog to do a down or another task the dog already knows how to perform. Often times when you do this, you will need that treat held almost under the dogs nose to get it to do more than one task per treat, but this gives you a start for breaking treat blackmail. You teach the dog that even when they see a treat, they need to do multiple things to get that treat. At first they will need to do two commands, then three, then four, then more. This helps separate the dog from the immediate reward it has demanded.

For a lot of dogs this kind of an exercise is enough to break their attempt to demand the owner give a reward for each task. However, for my dog, Cookie, it took more. Cookie was Kelsey's daughter, and although Cookie never witnessed her mother's blackmail first hand, she seemed predisposed to it. To break Cookie of the attitude, "if I don't see the treat, you don't see me perform the command," I employed several steps.

Step 1. Teach the dog that you can manage a reward without showing the treat.

To do this, I set the treat on a counter while Cookie watched. I then asked Cookie to sit. Of course, Cookie didn't sit. I then picked up the treat and again ask Cookie to sit. After Cookie sat, I'd set the treat down on the counter and say, "good girl," after which I'd pick up the treat and toss it to her. After a few practice sessions, Cookie learned that as long as she saw me set the treat on the counter, I didn't need to have the treat in my hand for her to receive it. I didn't try and fade the treat at this point.

Step 2. Teach the dog it doesn't need to know where the treat is to get the treat.

I set some better tasting treats on a table a few feet away while Cookie wasn't looking, then I'd call Cookie over and let her watch me set the less tasty treats on the counter. Without picking up a treat, I'd ask her to sit. She already understood that seeing me put the treats on the counter meant she'd get her payoff. After Cookie sat, I'd praise her, but then I'd go over to the table and take a treat from there. This taught Cookie that even when she didn't see me put down a treat, that she could receive a reward that was better than her regular treats.

Step 3. Fade the treat completely.

Before I went through the process of fading a treat, I went through the process of hiding treats throughout the house. I'd ask for a command, and magically come up with a treat. If Cookie didn't respond right away, I'd pick up the treat, show it, then return it to the counter. Cookie had to respond before I'd pick up the treat again.

Sometimes I'd keep the treats in my pocket, but some of the treats had too much odor, and I didn't want her to detect them before she decided to comply for a better tasting treat, making hiding treats throughout the house more effective. Finally I was able to fade the treat by giving treats intermittently.

Treats are a great way of motivating dogs to perform and to help keep up their interest even when they consider a task boring. However, with some dogs, you need to be on the lookout for treat blackmail. The sooner you intervene, the easier it is to break the dog's devious demands.

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