The “Real World” Argument

Any dog trainer who’s spent any amount of time feebly arguing on the internet has likely encountered the “real world” argument. It’s an argument most frequently seen from trainers who utilize correction collars and few  (if any) treats. They consider verbal praise to be a sufficient reward (and for some dogs in some cases, it is).

These folks sometimes lambaste us “cookie pushers” and say our reward-based training will not hold up in the “real world.”  Frankly, I didn’t realize I was training in an alternate reality! Neat!

But what they mean by “real world” is “out and about where your dog could actually get hurt if they don’t listen to you.” Where they could chase a squirrel into traffic, a loud noise could startle them into running away, they try to harass a venomous snake, etc. They say there’s more to communicating with your dog than shoving treats in their face for every problem.

I don’t disagree with that last statement at all. There is a lot more to it than treats. Treats will be almost useless if you have not also built a strong bond filled with trust and respect. The same goes for any other training tool, though.

Why do us “cookie pushers” use treats so much? They’re easy and most dogs will work for them. Plus they’re a great way to teach fearful dogs we’re safe and to associate us with good things That’s it. It is phenomenally arrogant and misguided to expect an animal simpler than ourselves to work for little to no payoff. Some dogs love working with us and are willing to do it for lesser rewards, such as verbal praise. Other dogs need more incentive. Much like I’m gonna need a dozen donuts rather than a pat on the back if you want me to help clean your house. Well, depending on who you are – if our relationship is stronger I may be willing to settle for half a dozen.

I love the people who say “you won’t always have treats on you.” They’re not wrong, but this exhibits a misunderstanding of how proper reward-based training is done. If you need treats to get your dog to respond to you every time, you’ve screwed  up your training. Skilled reward-based trainers use treats heavily when initially teaching behaviors and when increasing criteria (distance, distraction, duration, etc.). After that it’s best to work with a variable reinforcement schedule – no need to reward every behavior, and do it unpredictably. Think like a slot machine. They’re addictive for a reason. Your dog doesn’t know for certain if he’ll get a reward this time, but he’ll damn well try, just in case.

Let me clarify and get this out of the way: I am not in the “correction collars are torture devices!!!” camp. There are some dogs trained with these collars who perform beautifully and enjoy it (whether they would be even more amazing if trained without the collars, I can’t say). They’re just not my thing. For my purposes, I’ve never needed them. If I can get my dog to avoid danger with reward-based training and management (leashes, etc.), I prefer to go that route.

My point is that yes, reward-based training can work for the “real world” too. My dog was never physically corrected, but he had a rock solid recall. I was able to repeatedly call him back to me in the middle of chasing squirrels while off-leash (this was THE single most rewarding thing in life to him, mind you). His recall and equally solid “wait” cues actually stopped him from walking into the road a couple of times (once was when he was after a squirrel, the other was when he was following me to my car).

I had made working with me so rewarding and built up his trust in me so strongly that he would listen when he knew full-well I had no treats on me (and I frequently walked him without treats because I didn’t need them). I had conditioned such a strong positive feeling when he heard one of his cues that his response became automatic. He didn’t fear the consequence of what would happen if he didn’t listen, he loved what happened when he did listen. He loved working with me.


“Okay, I will trust your judgment here and assume this isn’t as weird as I think it is…”

Plenty of other reward-based trainers have achieved the same (if not better) results. Even with “hard” or “high drive” breeds that allegedly need a “firm hand” when training.

I’ll admit this is more difficult to achieve with some dogs (scent hounds, amirite?). But it’s very possible if done properly and I’m simply tired of people misunderstanding that.


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