Great Bait Bag Debate

A few months ago, I saw a discussion on Facebook between a few dog training folks that essentially blamed people who wear bait bags for ruining the reputation of positive reinforcement trainers. Personally, I disagree, but I wanted to open up the debate.

Their argument, as I understand it, is that far too many people who know a little (but not a lot) about positive reinforcement dog training:

  • Overuse treats in general
  • Use treats incorrectly (as lures rather than rewards)
  • Don’t fade treats soon enough
  • And, the like

I’m sure that’s probably true, but as someone who has spent 6+ years using both classical and operant conditioning with Lilly in various scenarios … I’m sure as shooting NOT going to carry food when we are in public just because it might give someone the wrong idea.

Let’s take a regular walk as an example. Does Lilly know how to walk nicely on a leash? You bet. Does she really need rewards for this particular task in and of itself. Nope. Still … a little variable reinforcement never hurts.

HOWEVER, what about all the things I cannot control when we are in public:

  • Other dogs
  • Overly friendly toddlers
  • Scary noises
  • Traffic
  • Wildlife

Any and all of these situations can turn a routine walk into something else entirely. I’d rather be prepared for a teachable moment, than not.

Where the comparison chafes…

So, why would someone being negative about a bait bag bother me so much?

Well, I think it’s because people often say that it isn’t dominance theory that is so terrible but that it’s the application by those who know a little (but not a lot) about it.

I’m probably making a giant leap here, but I certainly don’t put having treats on hand in the same thematic zone as someone who lays on top of their dog and growls in the pup’s face.

What say you?

Do you think most of us need to fade the bait bag sooner or entirely? Even if you’re a positive-reinforcement trainer, would you frown on someone like me for having food at the ready?


(Fearfuldog’s recent post: Dog Training in the Real World takes on a similar topic. It’s worth a read.)

Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related. I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

jo - December 13, 2010

It’s true that some dogs will find the bait bag a visual cue — which is why I alternate between a bait bag and pockets so the dogs don’t get used to one or the other. To me, it’s more important — especially when working with reactive dogs — to always have great reinforcers at the ready, either in a bait bag or jacket pocket or other hidden stashes for those “life” moments that you just can’t control; just as important is having the food or reinforcer out of the dog’s sight so that it doesn’t become a bribe or a visual cue (you know, like those folks who say their dog won’t do anything unless food’s in their hand? that was exactly how it was taught…)

Now that my dogs are older, they know I don’t always have goodies (even though I may smell like I do) but still like to play the odds, just in case… ; )

Val/Toby - December 13, 2010

I’ve gotten a LOT of flack for carrying a treat bag when out with my one year old golden/bc/shep mix when out at events with the rescue. Finally at the last large event we went to I ended up calling the biggest person against me using the bag out. I pointed out that the youngest of their dogs (because we don’t often take fosters to the really big stuff because it can be overwhelming – so it was actually THEIR dogs this time around) was three years old, Macy at that time was barely 8 months. And yet, despite being the youngest and in that crazy ‘adolescent’ age period… she was the one sitting or laying at my feet calmly while we went from booth to booth… their dogs not so much. Their dogs were all on prongs, mine knew I had a treat bag with the *potential* to reward her, but was I shoveling out treats all day? Nope. We left with most of my bag still full.

So I don’t see the treat bag as a problem. Like any tool though, you have to learn when and how to fade it out of the training picture. It’s something that can be difficult for beginning trainers (it was for me!) but the same can be said of new trainers/owners in the traditional fields as well, or clickers or any other tool.

sue - December 11, 2010

I have 2 small dogs so my goodie bag is not only for rewards, but also to ensure I can get them both to run to me if there’s danger around.
A big playful bouncy dog, as well as an agressive one approaching could mean an injury for my little ones. I don’t care what anyone says about the treats, it is part of my job description to protect the dogs in my care.
When i have used up all the treats, the lead goes back on.
I have to admit though, that no one has ever questioned me using ‘bribes’, but i wll have my answer eady now, just in case they do!! :o)

Robert - December 8, 2010

I’ve never taken a bait bag on walks after our dogs were trained to walk properly on a leash, but I can understand why people do it. I think people are WAY to hung up on absolutes. If it works for you and your dog, what’s the big deal?

Liz - December 8, 2010

I think luring is a perfectly fine technique and you should use the techniques that work best for you.

I’ll never forget I was walking with my dog off leash and when she either came to me when I asked, came to me on her own, or stayed with me by choice, I would reward her with a treat and/or praise. Another dog owner saw me and said “Oh-I see, you’re bribing her!”

Of course, I saw it as reinforcing positive behavior that I wanted her to repeat!

Jana Rade - December 8, 2010

I say two things:

1) forget what others are saying
2) if it works, don’t knock it

Eric Goebelbecker - December 7, 2010

I stopped used a treat bag as well as encouraging students to use them for one reason: I got tired of telling them to hide the bag. A treat bag on the side or the front of your belt is a huge visual cue and something for the dog to be looking at instead of your eyes.

As Debbie points out, it’s just as easy to inadvertently install other prompts, like food in hands, reaching in pockets too early, and so forth, but getting rid of the pouch means one less thing to worry about.

Before I leave: what’s wrong with using a lure? It’s *not getting rid of the lure* that’s the problem. It ought to be gone within a couple of trials. Always.

That sounds like a dig from the “more positive than thou, one must use a clicker and shaping” crowd. Sometimes I wish they’d spend more timing training and less time criticizing other trainers.

Elayne - December 7, 2010

Sheesh, you’ve got to be kidding. All this does is confirm for me that Facebook is the refuge of people with far too much time on their hands. I think a more interesting discussion would center on why people choose the training methods they do, what it says about their personality and values as well as their reasoning and decision making skills.

I don’t use a bait bag for agility or other types of formal training because I don’t want to have to fade it. I do take a fanny pack with me when I’m out walking/running the dogs in the neighborhood so I can belt them to my waist and have my hands free and I do put treats in the pack in case of a good trainable moment. I do get comments when people see me treat my dogs and they range from amused to disapproving but I honestly don’t care, I’ve learned to tune out the public and focus on my dogs when I’m working on a training issue. I figure my dogs’ behavior speaks louder than anything and I do get nice compliments on how well behaved they are. One could argue the other side of the coin, that the presence of the bait bag is an advertisement for positive reinforcement if the dogs are behaving well. A couple I know from the neighborhood ended up using positive reinforcement to train their reactive dog and one could argue that their decision could very well have been influenced by talking to me and watching me and others train their dogs that way.

hornblower - December 7, 2010

I do think the problem for some dogs is that they will not work if they don’t see the reward up front. They’re the ‘show me the money!’ dogs.

Good trainers know that a variable rate of reinforcement is the key to this type of dog.

At the same time, I think it’s Sue Ailsby that talks about knowing the cost of certain behaviours & banking those costs. For easy behaviours (not necessarily easy in general, but easy for that dog in that context) you may not need to pay for them at all. Dog enjoys doing them, finds them intrinsically rewarding – no payment necessary. Behaviours that are hard or that the dog does not enjoy you need to pay for regularly & you can only get so many freebies …. & then the dog says ‘nope! show me the money!’

I think with positive/rewards training there’s a philosophical shift that many are uncomfortable with – they really want the dog to do the behaviour no matter what, just because I said so!

I think the reality is that (other than behaviours which the dog finds self-rewarding) for a behaviour to stay solid, it has to be either differentially rewarded, or failure to do the behaviour has to be punished each and every time. I don’t think there’s any other way of keeping behaviours strong.

And for every person who rolls their eyes at bait bags, I roll my eyes at dogs on choke chains & e-collars. They keep using THEIR tools (or the threat thereof). We keep using ours.

Sam - December 7, 2010

I’m not quite sure I follow. I’m guessing it’s the visibility of the bait bag that people take issue with? That it makes it seem like reward-based trainers cannot fade their rewards?

Personally, I say, whatever floats your boat. If you want to use a bait bag, use one, and don’t worry about what other people think. If you don’t want to use one, that’s fine too. I don’t use a bait bag – I much prefer carrying treats in my pockets. But I NEVER leave the house without at least a little bit of a reward.

There are just way too many false statements floating out there about reward-based training that something like this doesn’t really surprise me.

Kristine - December 7, 2010

I never leave the house with my dog without some form of reward easily accessible. I don’t typically use bait bags except in agility class because I find them awkward to reach into, especially during the winter. But I always have something tasty in my pocket.

I have been told by a few people we’ve met on walks that my training is more like bribing, but I have gotten really good at ignoring them. Like you say, you may be able to control your dog, but you can’t control your entire external environment. From the kid that decides to run screaming towards us to the sudden dog appearing from behind a tree, I would rather be ready than face a potential meltdown. It protects others and it protects my dog as well. Rewards give both of us the confidence to handle it all in stride.

Besides, it is really nobody else’s business how many rewards I give my dog.

AC - December 7, 2010

What reputation is it ruining? Are these pro trainers who are worried that lay people who don’t have the techniques down will make them look bad? Or is it the debate that bait bags in general aren’t good? Or is it more the actual treating, not necessarily the bag?

I’d say…if someone is trying to work with their dog using positive methods…amen to that! I know there are many pro trainers who’d say folks don’t treat enough, luring isn’t always bad, don’t fade the treats out so quickly…

This sounds like a debate I’ve heard from dog owners who believe that their dogs should want to work for them, not a treat (not saying this is the case here). Working for them should be a big enough reward. I think that’s more emotional reasoning and doesn’t hold up with the science behind how dogs learn and how they are motivated.

Personally…don’t have a bait bag, but don’t leave home without a huge bag of goodies! (kona says, “chicken sausage please.”)

Laura, Lance, and Vito - December 7, 2010

I love my treat pouch. I still use it in my comp obedience classes for simple ease of use! Do I need a pouch, no, do I even need the treats on my body, no, but I DO want to be able to reward the great stuff when it occurs.

I admit that I reward a little too much. I can get sloppy in my criteria and give a treat just for completion of an exercise instead of really being picky about what I’m rewarding. I’m better about not treating on walks, but I still want to reward good choices.

In my opinion the treat pouch is another tool in the same way as a gentle leader, pinch collar, or even a leash. Once trained, the dog should be able to be well mannered with nothing on person or dog.
I test that everytime I step in the obedience ring. But I still find nothing wrong with carrying around rewards.

KB - December 7, 2010

I still carry a bait bag after 7 yrs of training K using positive methods. Sometimes, I realize after an hour long outing that I haven’t given her a single treat. In that case, just to keep her on her toes, I give her one for her next success. I think that it keeps things interesting and fun, even for the well-trained dog. And, I agree, it’s incredibly useful for the things that K doesn’t handle very well, like walking into the vet’s office (where she gets so excited that she becomes very noisy). I still use treats to work on eye contact and “quiet” in the waiting room.

I don’t see any problem with carrying a bait bag for those situations that are tough for a given dog.

Now, as you know, R is another matter. I wouldn’t leave home without a bait bag, for he is still truly a work in progress.

I had no idea that people felt that way about bait bags… but I sure am not stopping using one because they might look down upon me.

Debbie Jacobs - December 7, 2010

Bait bags can be cues for dogs and some will learn that no high value reward is pending if they don’t see the bag. So it can be like a bribe.

It can help some dogs if they are rewarded with a high value food treat when they don’t see an indication of its source or existence. So for dogs whose performance decreases when no visible source of food is visible, it’s easy enough to start rewarding the dog with food they didn’t know is around. We can flip the whole process on its ear. “I don’t see the reward, I do the behavior, I get a reward.” Increasing the likelihood we’ll get the behavior when no food is visible.

But even then we can cue the dog by reaching into our pocket when we ask for a behavior. so they can predict that food is pending and be more motivated for that reason.

A lot depends on the dog and the quality of performance we get with or without a bait bag. Nothing beats them for convenience and when you need lots of treats on hand for behavior mod.

So saying that the bag, or the food is the problem is silly IMHO. It depends on how it’s used.

Comments are closed