My wife and I have cats. If you’ve never had cats before, cats are like furry little ninjas. They are quiet on their paws and very quick, which makes them exceedingly good at getting places they shouldn’t.
One of the first things we realized, after we moved into our house, was that it was going to be almost impossible to keep them out of the basement. Don’t believe me? Try blocking a one foot tall fluffy black streak of lightning from darting past you, as you open the basement door, while you’re carrying an overflowing basket of laundry.
Now, our basement isn’t a horribly unsafe environment for a cat, and their occasional visits do manage to keep the population of cave crickets somewhat in check; however, our basement door is not in such a place as to make it convenient to leave open all the time, so they can just come and go as they please. Once down there, we needed a way to get them out.
The solution we eventually settled upon was to call them with treats. Our cats were already very well conditioned to come running every time they hear their treat container getting shaken. This is fairly useful for things like getting them out the door to the vet, claw trimming time, or when you just simply can’t find one of them, and you want to make sure they didn’t get out or get locked in a closet they’d slipped into, when you weren’t looking.
This has been an incredibly effective method, as our cats are two of the most food motivated animals I have ever met, but it’s had one unplanned repercussion. Our cats now associate going to the basement with getting treats, to the point that they will actually beg to go down, even pawing at the basement door, because they know they will get a treat, when they come back up.
That’s the unfortunate side effect of treat training. Sometimes, the animal gets so motivated for the treat, they will often begin performing the behavior, completely unprompted, just to get the treat. The behavior the treat was designed to reinforce has become secondary, just a means to an end.
Believe it or not, this happens with humans too, and there’s a good chance you’ve been doing it to yourself, or at least having it done to you, for years. You may even be guilty of doing it to those you love.
Stop me if this sounds familiar. You’re around 7 or 8 years old, and Saturday morning cartoons have just ended. Your mom tells you to get dressed. She needs to go to the grocery store, and she’s taking you with her. As you run up to your room, mom utters those magical words you were waiting to hear. “If you’re good, we can stop at McDonald’s on the way home.”
Ah yes, the quintessential childhood reward. I think every American of a certain age equates being a good little boy or girl with getting a Happy Meal on the way home, complete with collectable toy, probably promoting Disney’s big summer blockbuster. Is it any wonder that so many of us still have that strong emotional response to the smell of McDonald’s fries?
Maybe fast food wasn’t your parent’s reward of choice. Maybe at the end of a well behaved shopping trip, you got to pick out your favorite candy bar from the rack. If that’s the case, I bet you still have trouble going through the checkout line without reaching for a Kit Kat or Snickers.
Whatever bribe was typically offered in your household, I’m sure it turned you into a well behaved and eager little helper, when it was time to run errands, do chores, or whatever task you were meant to get you on board with; however, I’m sure there were times this strategy backfired on your parents. If you dig into the back of your memory, I’ll bet you can remember a few occasions when the expected reward was not received. Perhaps the shopping was done late that day, and mom or dad decided it was too close to dinner, or maybe the two of you simply disagreed on the quality of your behavior. I’ll be willing to wager your reaction was not a pleasant one.
Am I hitting too close to home with this? I wonder how many of you are identifying as the child in this scenario, and how many of you see yourselves as the parent, doing this to your own child.
Now, this type of behavior doesn’t necessarily have to be learned from our parents; this is just an example many can identify with. Maybe you had an elementary school teacher who gave out candy for good performances. You may even have happened upon it by yourself, treating yourself with pizza and beer after finishing a big paper, in college. However you came by it, once learned, treat training is a hard habit to break.
Look, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the occasional treat, but it becomes a problem, when it gets to be habitual. You start looking for excuses to increase the frequency of your treats. Maybe you like to run into the mini mart at the gas station, and grab a snack, when you fill up the tank. Pretty soon, you start filling up at half a tank, just so you can get your snack. Next thing you know, you’re stopping at the gas station every time you drive past it, whether your car needs gas or not. The treat has ceased to be the secondary.
If this sounds like you, it doesn’t have to be. First, stop using treats as a reward system. Learn to do the things that need doing for the sake of getting them done. Make treats their own special occasion, with no specific attachment to places or tasks. One trick that I find helps is to avoid mundane treats, and stick to treats that require more effort. If the only time you have ice cream is when you go to an actual ice cream shop, do you think you’ll have it more or less than when there’s always a tub of Ben & Jerry’s waiting in your freezer?
If you really need a reward system to motivate you, try to think of one that won’t add calories to your diet and inches to your waist. Maybe get a pedicure or buy yourself something for your favorite hobby. Focusing on bigger rewards like this might also help you focus on bigger goals to get them.
Remember, you’re not a pet; don’t treat yourself like one.