In Greek mythology, the Sirens are seductive yet dangerous creatures living on a rocky island. They sing irresistible songs to distract sailors from their intended work and lure them to shipwreck on the Sirens’ coastline.
The term “siren song” means an appeal that is hard to resist yet leads to suffering and ruin.
Fantastic declarations tend to get people’s attention. Whether the reason is a longing for a sense of magic in life, the desire for instant gratification, or simply a hope to save time, there’s a reason that in modern times we also call this type of longing the search for a “magic bullet.” Emphasis on bullet.
We don’t use magic bullets to help dogs in need. We don’t string them along or endanger them. We pay for the work they do, just as our employers pay us for the work we do. Their payment is almost always in the form of novel, high value food items because just as monetary income is a primary reinforcer for human workers, palatable food is a primary reinforcer for dogs.
We may sometimes hear someone say that a particular dog “isn’t food motivated” or treat motivated. But because dogs require food to live, all dogs are food motivated so long as they are motivated to survive. There are a few possible reasons a dog might refuse to eat a treat or other food item; these reasons have little to do with motivation per se, however. Such a dog might be ill or in pain, overfed, over threshold, afraid of the offerer, the context, or might simply find the specific food being offered uninspiring. It is obvious that feeling full or unwell can reduce interest in food, but what about the other reasons?
The taste and rarity of an offered food affects its value to a dog. Sometimes a dog appears unmotivated by food because he has only been offered kibble, or only low quality treats, or the same treat day after day, year after year. Or his favorite treat food hasn’t been ascertained; preference tests can determine his favorite. Outside contexts described above and below, I’ve never seen a dog refuse to train for the consequence of his favorite primary food reinforcer, also known as a “reward” — also endearingly known in training circles as a paycheck. A great paycheck for a job well done tends to inspire more jobs well done.
Being too close to a dog’s trigger will typically result in the dog refusing even his favorite high value food. “Over threshold” is a general term used to describe such a situation where proximity or exposure to a trigger heightens distress beyond the dog’s ability to cope. The solution is not to give up on treats but rather to put more space between the dog and his trigger. If the trigger is a stressful environment, move the dog to a less stressful environment.
What if the dog is triggered by the trainer, the training context, or both? What if a dog is afraid of a particular trainer, her methods, or her equipment? Any person who uses aversive methods — such as squirting, leash jerking or aversive equipment — for example, shock collars, prong collars — on a dog can become a trigger to that dog since these things scare, intimidate, force, and cause pain to the dog. The dog then develops fear and/or other negative associations regarding that trigger-person. That person might then interpret the dog’s refusal to take treats from her as “not interested in treats” rather than acknowledge that the dog is afraid of her and by association her treats.
Sadly, such a dog finds himself stuck in a vicious cycle of suffering from increasingly aversive training interactions; it becomes too tempting — and easy money — to slap a shock collar on a dog rather than work through a humane, skillfully implemented program. Claims that shock “saves lives” persist among those who use it, but studies show an increase of about 40% in aggression in dogs trained with aversives, and since aggression is the top behavior problem for which dogs are euthanized, the lifesaving claim makes no sense.
The average person doesn’t follow the long-term consequences of actions taken on disadvantaged dogs, just as we don’t know what happens to the sailors a year or several after their shipwreck on the Sirens’ shore.
Classics scholar Walter Copland Perry described the Sirens as the muses of the lower world, observing that “they lapped both body and soul in a fatal lethargy, the forerunner of death and corruption.”