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Science and Dog Training ABC’s

Dory, Gytha, and I
Dory, Gytha, and I

When I train dogs, I use a clicker and treats. I think a lot of people balk at the use of treats in dog training because they don’t understand the science behind the approach. I understand why: they don’t want their dogs to get to the point where they will only do something if they see the treat ahead of time. The potential for “bribery” is a valid concern. However, I think that the concern is generally misplaced. The use of treats in dog training goes back to the school of “behaviorism”, which is a branch of psychology. I’m going to briefly explain the science behind this approach to illustrate that training with treats isn’t really about the treats, it’s about the conditioning.

Pavlov and His Dogs

Way back in the 1890s, Ivan Pavlov was conducting an experiment and had an unrelated discovery. He noticed the dogs he was working with salivated at the sight of food. Then, over time, they started salivating early–when he came into the room, whether he had food or not. He suspected that the dogs were predicting food with his arrival. To verify this, he ran an experiment. He paired a bell with the arrival of food. Predictably, the dogs started salivating at the sound of the bell. Thus, the theory of “Classical Conditioning” was born. 

Skinner Breaks Classical Conditioning Out of Its Box

In the 1950s BF Skinner took conditioning to a whole new level. Rather than looking at that which preceded the behavior, he started to focus on the consequences of a behavior. Through observation, he discovered that behaviors that were rewarded became stronger. On the other hand, behaviors that were not rewarded or led to negative consequences weakened. From there, it became a simple matter of manipulating the consequences of a behavior to influence it. This process became known as “operant conditioning”.

Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence

What does this mean for when we train dogs? To reiterate: It’s not about the treats; it’s about the conditioning.

If we want to influence a dog’s behavior (whether it is simple dog training or more significant behavior modification), we need remember that consequences fuel anticipation, which drives behaviors. This is where the treats come in. Food is something that inherently has value to a dog. That’s why it makes for a great reinforcer. Since we know that reinforced behaviors strengthen and we know that food is a great reinforcer, we also know that using treats is an extremely powerful and efficient way to train a dog to learn specific behaviors. (Thank you Skinner.)

But in dog training, it isn’t enough to only manipulate consequences. We need to put a behavior “on cue”. This is where we add an “antecedent” (that which comes before the behavior). Through an intentional, consistent educational process, an antecedent (or “cue”) is connected with a behavior that is powered by its consequence. So, for example, a dog will learn that when she hears the antecedent “sit”, she predicts that good things will happen if she puts her butt on the ground. Thus, the antecedent triggers the behavior. Over time, this becomes a habit (or a “conditioned response”, thank you Pavlov).

A Dog Training Template

One of the beautiful things about a scientific approach to dog training is that science demands reproducible, predictable results. We know that the “antecedent-behavior-consequence” (ABC) pattern is one that works and is extremely effective. Plus, it is easy to grasp.

Of course, being able to grasp the concept and being able to execute it are two different things. It’s not unlike riding a bike. Remember how uncoordinated you were when you first started? It took a while for that productive coordination to set in. But once it did, you were good to go.

It’s the same thing with the ABC’s of dog training. It will take a while for you to build up the coordination to simply go. A lot of mistakes will happen along the way, and that’s okay. As you do the best you can, just keep in mind the formula as a measure for your training process.

Let’s look at it this way (a “/” means happening at the same time, with separate events following “→“):

Did you do this?

  • dog sits/say ”sit” → treat. (Oops! Try again.)

Or maybe this?

  • dog sits → “sit”/treat (Oops! Try yet again.)

Or, how about this?

  • say “sit” → dog sits → treat (Yay! You got it!)

But I’ve Done It Differently and It Worked

I love the ABC’s of dog training because they are simple and effective. It doesn’t mean that other orders can’t work. I’ve seen a trainer say that when “capturing” a behavior (which is rewarding it when the dog just happens to do it) you want to say the cue word (such as “sit”) when the behavior happens. It is indeed possible to condition a dog like this. But I suspect it’s also a bit more confusing for the dog, which makes learning a little harder.

As a dog trainer, I’m not just concerned with whether a technique works. I’m also concerned with how efficient it is. Why would I want to say a cue as the behavior happens, when saying it before the behavior as an antecedent is more powerful? Why would I want to avoid the use of treats when I know that they empower faster learning? Sure, you want to avoid falling into a situation where you are bribing behaviors out of your dog with treats. But when training with treats is done properly, behaviors are reinforced and conditioned habits form. Once the habitual behavior is in place, the treats can be phased out, because it’s not about the treats, it’s about the conditioning.


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