Articles and information on dog behavior

Bribes vs Rewards

by Nancy Tucker (“The Normal Dog” Blog – March 22, 2011)

Every single time I walk with Woody, I bring along a treat pouch with a mishmash of various goodies. Maybe some kibble, maybe some dried liver, maybe some cheese, maybe some apple chunks, or maybe some of Woody’s favorite Zukes.

Recently, someone remarked, “What? You STILL need to carry treats for your dog??”

Well, no. Of course I don’t need to. But why on earth wouldn’t I? During our walks, I can come across plenty of perfect opportunities to toss him a reward to let him know he’s done something I liked.

Like the day we came face-to-face with someone walking a dog who clearly didn’t want Woody to approach him. What did Woody do when he saw the dog? Well, in the past, he would have taken off like a bullet towards the dog, with me skidding behind him on my heels like a cartoon character. But this day, Woody paused and turned towards me. Yesssssssssss! Good boy! Here’s a treat. Here’s another! Here are three more on the ground… Find it! Find it!

By the time Woody looked up again, the other dog had passed, and we went on our merry way. In those few seconds of activity, I reinforced a behavior in my dog that originally took me a very long time to instill. It cost me precisely 5 treats. Yay for Woody! In return, I have a dog who is much more likely to repeat this behavior the next time we come across a similar situation. Yay for me!

“But isn’t he only doing it because you have treats?”… Well, no. He did it because there was the
possibility of treats. I did not promise a treat beforehand by waving it in front of Woody and saying, “Here Woody! Look what I have! This way.. this way! Woooooo-dy! Look at me! Look at me! Want some cheese? Woody? Woody? WOODY?!! Want some liver? Here Woody! Over here! Cookie? Cooooooookieeeeeeee??”… in a desperate attempt to win his attention.

Instead, because I had tossed him a treat in the past whenever another dog was in the vicinity, Woody quickly calculated the odds of getting a treat on this particular occasion. He saw the dog, then took a gamble and glanced at me. “Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding!!!” Jackpot! Glancing at me is exactly what I want him to do. To let him know, I reward him. Woody has now figured out that offering this behavior works out very well for him indeed. By rewarding him, I’ve just made this behavior stronger and more likely to happen again. Everyone wins.

With a bribe, the promise of payment comes before the behavior is executed. With a reward, the behavior comes first. I waited for Woody to offer me the behavior I was looking for, and when I got it, I rewarded him.

I see nothing wrong with snatching up random opportunities like this to let your dog know he’s doing something right. I assure you, you’re not “spoiling” him. On some walks, Woody might get three treats. On others, he might get ten. And still on others, he might get none! Thanks to this unpredictable treat schedule, I’ve successfully turned Woody into a gambling addict, which in turn makes him a very well-behaved dog.

Well… most of the time…. ;)

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It’s Only Funny Until Your Dog Runs Out of Spoons

Photo by scribbletaylor on Flickr

Photo by scribbletaylor on Flickr

We’ve all seen the funny videos and animated GIFs on the internet of dogs doing crazy things (or crazy things happening around dogs). Dogs and children. Dogs and adults. Dogs and cats. Dogs and the vacuum cleaner.

We pass these “funny” or “adorable” pictures and videos to our Facebook friends and pin them to our boards on Pinterest.

…but I’m here to encourage you to stop.

It has to do with spoons. Did you know your dog has spoons? He does, and it’s a very bad thing if he runs out of them.

The Spoon Theory

If you know anyone who lives with a chronic illness (physical or mental), you are likely familiar with Spoon Theory. If not, here is the article that you’ll want to read in your spare time. It is excellent and will help you be a more compassionate friend.

The gist of Spoon Theory is this:

Each morning, a person with a chronic illness wakes up with a certain number of “spoons.” These spoons represent the number of activities or interactions that they can handle in a given day. Once they run out of spoons, they need time to relax and recharge.  If they don’t, it could result in a physical or mental crisis (or a really bad day tomorrow). Depending on the day, they may have more spoons (feelin’ good!) or less (bad pain day).

Got it? Let’s move on!

Human Spoons vs. Dog Spoons

As a human, you choose how you spend your spoons. If you know you’ll need energy for a presentation to your boss at 3 pm, you’ll likely skip going out to lunch with your colleagues at noon. If your arthritis is bothering you, you can avoid doing tasks that are particularly painful. If you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed or in physical pain, you can choose to take a day off work and relax in front of cheesy daytime TV.

Dogs don’t get to choose how they spend their spoons. We do. Every day, we make decisions for our dogs. We decide which path our morning walk will take. We decide whether we want them to “meet” that new dog in the neighborhood. We decide whether the little girl next door can come over and play fetch. We decide to hug and kiss them. We decide to let the toddler use the dog for a pillow, or worse yet, a horse.

How Many Spoons Does a Dog Have?

A well-socialized, happy dog may appear to have unlimited spoons. A fearful or reactive dog may start out with only a few. My fearful dog, Titania, has greatly increased her spoon collection, thanks to classes at Your Dog’s Friend and the advice of Debbie Jacobs of Thanks to counter-conditioning and confidence building exercises, she enjoys a lot more of life than she did just two years ago.

An Example of a Dog Losing Spoons

We remove a spoon from our dog’s collection every time we expose them to a situation that makes them uncomfortable.

This was posted to a friend’s Facebook wall:



Let’s count the stress signals this dog is showing:

  • Stiff body
  • Ears pinned back
  • Whale eyes (wide eyes with lots of white showing)
  • Leaning away

In short, in the few seconds of this animated GIF, this dog is shedding spoons left and right.

What would happen if the dog was already having a bad day? Let’s say that a meeting on his morning walk resulted in getting snapped at by an unfamiliar dog. There’s construction going on next door and there are lots of loud noises and strangers in hard hats. And unbeknownst to his human, this dog ate something in the backyard and now his tummy is feeling upset.

Now what happens when the man tries his parlor trick?

The Bite That Came “Out of Nowhere”

Dog bites never come out of nowhere. The man in the image above probably does this “trick” to entertain his friends all the time and has never been bitten. But if his dog was having that bad day described above and had run out of spoons… well, that man could end up with a bite to the face. And it would have been 100% his fault, not the dog’s.

Conserving Your Dog’s Spoons

A dog with plenty of spoons is a happy dog!

As a dog parent, it’s your job to recognize the stress signals in your dog and keep them away from situations (or people) that cause them anxiety. For your dog, this may mean scheduling your daily walk for a time when fewer bicyclists are on the trail, or leaving your dog home instead of taking them to the pet store with you. It could mean giving your dog “me time” when they can relax in their crate with a bully stick and not be interrupted by your children.

Most importantly, it means being present with your dog and knowing when to remove them from a situation. A dog isn’t able to say, “Hey, I’ve got one spoon left and if this kid pulls my ear one more time, I’m done!!” You are your dog’s spoon-monitoring superhero, and they love you for it.

Want to Learn More?

We host free workshops on various topics throughout the year, including several on fear, reactivity, and other behavior issues.

For now, we recommend this article on Dogster entitled: How are Dog Bites Like Tetris?

If you have a fearful dog, we highly recommend reading and watching anything by Debbie Jacobs of

As always, if you have questions, we’re happy to help. Contact us anytime.

Why Punishing a Dog’s Fear Doesn’t Work

Rex was so fearful when he was first rescued, he would void his bowels if someone touched him. With patience and positive training, he now cuddles with his mom and will take treats from his dad.

Rex was so fearful when he was first rescued, he would void his bowels if someone touched him. With patience and positive training, he now cuddles with his mom and will take treats from his dad.

Dogs can express fear in a variety of ways.

Some dogs, like Rex on the right, express their fear by shrinking back and trying to be invisible.

Others, like Jazzy in this article from our Newsletter Archives, show their anxiety by trying to act tough and scare away the thing that scares them.

Both of these dogs can be rehabilitated through the same positive training methods.

Read More

Related Classes at Your Dog’s Friend

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Destructive Dog? Easy & Fun Activities to Tucker Them Out

Photo of "Fez" with his Nylabone courtesy of LeeAnn Heringer

Photo of “Fez” with his Nylabone courtesy of LeeAnn Heringer

Does your dog get into things? Chew? Dig? Bark?

Surprised? You shouldn’t be! He’s a dog and that’s what dogs do!

In this article from our Newsletter Archives, learn

  • the difference between Interactive Toys and Pacifier Toys;
  • which toys are safe for times when your dog is home alone; and
  • doggy games to play with the whole family (even on rainy days).

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5 Steps to Positive Dog Training

Photo by bullcitydogs on Flickr

Photo by bullcitydogs on Flickr

You don’t need a psychology degree to understand positive, rewards-based dog training. This article from our Newsletter Archives describes the five simple steps to create a lifelong bond between you and your dog.

The first step? Decide with your family what behaviors you want your dog to learn and what word(s) you want to use to cue that behavior.

  • Sit
  • Down
  • Off
  • Drop It
  • Leave It
  • Wait
  • Stay

The next steps can be found in our Newsletter Archives!

Read More

Basic Manners Classes at Your Dog’s Friend

If you’re in the Rockville, Maryland area, we’d love to have you and your dog join us for Basic Manners class! Or, if you have a puppy, join us for Puppy Kindergarten!

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Teaching Your Dog to “Drop It”

Photo by zoomar on Flickr

Photo by zoomar on Flickr

When your dog steals an item she shouldn’t have — a sock, a shoe, a child’s toy — how do you get it back?

If it involves an epic game of “catch me if you can” or growling, this article from our Newsletter Archives is perfect for you.

Learn how to get your dog to happily release anything she currently has in her mouth when you utter the words, “Drop it” or “Give.”

Is it magic? Nope. Just positive training at work!

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