In the context of dog training, the difference between a bribe and a reward is that with a bribe, the payment comes before the behavior, with a reward, the payment comes after the behavior. With a certain amount of levity I have elsewhere suggested that we don’t bribe dogs for the same reason we don’t bribe people – because then they own you. On a more serious note, bribing a dog as a management technique can have genuinely terrible consequences.
Even if you aren’t training, your dog is always learning. That’s what they do. So it is important to understand how dogs learn, which is quite different in some key regards from how humans learn. Humans are capable of sophisticated reasoning about abstract cause and effect. Dogs are not. Dogs do not think about what causes what as much as they connect a behavior, an event, or the appearance of an environmental contrast to what happened next. The simplest way to think about this is to recognize that if a consequence happens more than 1.5 to 2 seconds after an event, most dogs have a great deal of difficulty connecting the two. If the consequence happens within 1.5 seconds or less, most dogs can connect it with the antecedent condition. There are two important implications here.
The first is that to be an effective trainer, your timing has to be good. The second, and the point of this discussion, is that even if the events are not related in any way whatsoever that you can make sense of, the dog will connect them.
I regularly encounter clients who have used food treats or toys to “distract” a dog from undesirable behavior. By the time they come to me, the dog is often experiencing a stress-related disorder, some of them are on a pharmaceutical management program, and most have aggression problems. Untreated, these dogs all too often end up taking a one-way trip to the vet. We call it “euthanasia” but it isn’t – it’s a relationship failure that costs the dog his or her life.
Think about it from the dog’s perspective. To the dog, all behaviors carry the same relative value, that is, “neutral,” until the behavior generates a particular consequence in a particular context. If the behavior produces a result the dog finds rewarding, it is likely to be repeated. If the behavior produces a result the dog finds sufficiently aversive, it is less likely to be repeated – if the dog can connect the behavior to the outcome.
So imagine what the dog is thinking; “Every time I (threaten the neighbor, chase the cat, fill in the blank) it makes a cookie happen.” The dog will quickly and reasonably learn that this behavior pays, will continue to offer similar behaviors, and the frequency and intensity will increase over time. At least until the owner takes the dog to the vet because it is uncontrollable / crazy / violently aggressive or some permutation thereof.
Yes, by bribing your dog, or “distracting” your dog, you are harming your dog. Don’t do it, not even once.