Category Archives: Trick Training

The Allure of Luring

Luring is sometimes frowned upon by clicker “purists,” but it can be one useful way to help a novice dog figure out what you want or to get to the end goal faster with any dog. A lure is a small reinforcer, such as a toy or treat, that is used as a “magnet” to position the dog. Many trainers use lures to teach position behaviors, such as sit, lie down, or heel. While I rarely use luring with my own dogs, I certainly think it’s a useful tool to keep in your training toolbox.

Photo by niXerKG on flickr

Photo by niXerKG on flickr

Luring is quite straightforward for both dog and handler. The dog knows right from the start what’s at stake if he can figure out what you want (whatever’s in your hand at the moment), and you can easily show your dog what to do (by using the magnetic properties of the lure). When your dog gets it right, you simply click and give your dog his reward. Easy!

As straightforward as luring can be, it can also cause some problems down the road. In the beginning stages, some dogs become too focused on the toy or treat to think about what they’re doing. Especially for food- or toy-obsessed dogs, you may find that your dog is blindly following the lure without a clue as to what behavior earned him a reward.

Another potential problem with luring is that some dogs become dependent on the lure. They become “show me the money” dogs, not performing until they know what’s at stake. This is easier to prevent than it is to fix, but it’s certainly not a deal-breaker if it happens.

Preventing lure-dependency is as simple as not letting the lure become a pattern. Use your food or toy to help the dog get into position 3-5 times, then get the reward out of your hand. Make the same hand motion you were doing with your lure, and when your dog does the target behavior, click and produce his reward from a hidden place such as a bait bag, pocket, or from behind your back. You’ve now switched from bribing the dog (showing him what he could have ahead of time) to rewarding him (surprising him with something special after he does what you want).

If your dog has already learned to wait for a lure, this is a bit trickier to work through, but still not the end of the world. In this situation, we need to reverse expectations. Many dogs learn (rightfully so!) that if you’re not holding something in your hand you’re not planning to give him anything when he complies. Your goal at this point is to change your dog’s expectation by teaching him that he’s more likely to get a reward if you don’t have anything in your hand than if you do.

Start by putting a very valuable reward in your hand and showing it to your dog. This could be a favorite toy, a hunk of roast beef, or anything else that will really get your dog excited. Ask your dog to do the behavior you’re working on. When he does, praise and pet him enthusiastically, but do not give him the reward.

Now, take that tempting reward that’s in your hand and put it away nearby where your dog can’t get it but you can still get to it quickly. Perhaps you might set it on the counter, tuck it in a bait bag, or store it on top of a nearby bookshelf. Make sure your dog sees you put it away and knows that your hand is empty. Ask for the same behavior again, and wait. Don’t repeat your cue, and don’t be surprised if it takes the dog a few moments to comply. Wait him out. At this point he’s likely to very slowly do what you asked. The second he starts to comply (before he’s even completed the behavior!), click and give him the reward (pulling it out of your bait bag, sweeping it off the bookshelf, etc). Repeat this exercise several times a day until your dog starts to get the idea that an empty hand is likely to predict great things for him. And hey, remember to be fair, okay? If you ran into this problem in the first place you were probably being a bit stingy about rewarding your dog for listening, so spend a little more time proofing that behavior before asking your dog to do it for “free” again.

Luring can certainly be a useful way to teach your dog, as long as you do so thoughtfully. Just remember to switch from luring (showing the reward to the dog ahead of time) to rewarding (producing the reward after the dog has done what you asked) quickly so you don’t become overly dependent on it.

What behaviors has your dog learned through luring? Have you ever run into any problems with this training technique? Please share your thoughts and stories in the comments below!

Playing With Your Dog: An Illustrated Guide

Thanks to the supremely talented Lili Chin of Doggie Drawings for suggesting this project. I had a blast collaborating with her! (Click on the image below to enlarge…)

Mental Exercise

As we mentioned before, mental exercise is every bit as important for dogs as physical exercise. Sadly, this basic need is oftentimes overlooked by well-intentioned pet owners. Relying solely on physical exercise is not enough. Many well-cared-for dogs nonetheless lead impoverished lives because their cognitive needs are ignored. We would never dream of starving a dog by withholding food, but by not giving our dogs the chance to use their brains, we are also withholding a vital ingredient to happiness. Research into canine cognition has shown time and time again the remarkable capacity that dogs have for problem solving, and by providing opportunities for our dogs to think and puzzle things out we enrich their lives and make them so much happier.

So, what are the best ways to provide mental exercise for your dog? Every dog is different, and it’s important to play to your dog’s strengths. This is such a complex topic that an entire book is in the works, but here’s a brief overview of some great ways to engage your dog’s brain.

It’s All About the Food: One of the easiest ways to fulfill your dog’s need for daily mental exercise is to simply throw out his food bowl. Whether you use his dog food as training rewards, feed him from a puzzle toy such as a Kong or Tug-a-Jug, feed him by hand, or scatter his kibble on the floor or in the backyard for a scavenger hunt, mixing up mealtimes will add an element of fun to his day.

The Nose Knows: Dogs have an incredibly keen sense of smell, which we largely ignore. Engage your dog’s olfactory abilities by having him follow treat trails, playing hide ‘n seek with yourself or a favorite toy, introducing novel scents into his environment (ask a farm friend for some used straw to put in your back yard, let a pal’s pet hamster crawl all over one of your dog’s toys, or dab a drop of essential oil on a tree or rock), or learning the fun sport of K9 Nose Work.

A Classy Dog: Training class is a great source of mental exercise! In addition to the weekly stimulation of class itself, enrolling in a class gives you motivation to work with your dog on new skills regularly. Whether you’re trying rally obedience, canine freestyle, agility, or fun tricks, think of class as date night with your dog. Can’t make it to a class? Try teaching new tricks or even helpful service dog tasks at home.

Change it Up: Dogs enjoy routine, and it’s important to stick to one. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t enrich your dog’s life by making little changes. Try a different walking route with new sights and smells, introduce your dog to new people or animals, play different instrumental music during the day (Mexican guitar? Celtic harp? Classical piano?), create an obstacle course in your backyard, or try a new dog treat recipe that you bake yourself (and don’t forget to let your dog lick out the mixing bowl). Think of new sights, sounds, scents, tastes, and textures you can introduce into your dog’s environment to engage his curiousity.

In future posts we’ll talk about some of the potential problems with exercise, as well as some of our favorite puzzle toys. In the meantime, please share your comments with us below! Do you provide regular mental enrichment for your dog? What are your pup’s favorite activities?

Adding the Cue

Once your dog begins to offer a behavior regularly, you can put it on cue. A cue is the word you say to tell your dog, “now’s a good time to do that behavior, because it might pay off.” Think of it as a green light for the behavior.

To put a behavior on cue, we need to teach the dog that the word and behavior are connected.

In traditional compulsive training, cues are taught right from the start. The trainer tells the dog what to do (for example, “sit”), and when the dog doesn’t respond the trainer physically places the dog in that position. Over many repetitions, the dog learns to put his rear end on the ground when he hears “sit” to avoid being pushed into that position.

In clicker training, we first teach the dog what we want him to do.

Remember, dogs don’t understand English. They learn what words mean by associating the word with whatever action is most closely paired with it over many repetitions. This means that if your dog is standing in front of you, staring at you, and you keep telling him to “sit,” he’s very likely to think that the word “sit” means “stand in front of my owner and look at them.” Not the association we want them to make!

Before you begin to add the cue, wait until your dog is offering the new behavior reliably enough that you can predict when he’s going to do it. Perhaps you’ve been capturing his bow every morning when he stretches, and now every time he walks up to you he bows in the hope that you’ll click and give him a treat.

When you would bet $50 that the dog is going to bow within the next 2-3 seconds, say your cue. Let’s say that you want to teach your dog to bow when you ask, “who’s your queen?” Say “queen” right before you think the dog is going to bow. When he bows, click and treat. Repeat this 10 times or so. Each time you think he’s about to bow, say “queen,” then click and treat. After 10 bows, stop talking. He’ll probably bow again. Don’t click this one. He may bow more, or try bowing deeper. Wait until he stops bowing. As soon as there’s a pause, say “queen” and click the next bow that happens after this.

At this stage, we’re teaching the dog an improvement on his bowing behavior. He’s learned that sometimes when he bows he’s going to get a snack. Now, we’re explaining a new rule to him. We’re showing him that he will only get a snack for bowing if he does so when he hears the word “queen” first. “Queen” has become a green light for bowing. It tells him, “now would be a good time to try that bowing trick.”

This is how to get behaviors on cue. If you want a non-verbal cue for a behavior, such as a hand signal or body cue, just insert that movement in place of the word in the above example (for instance, you may decide you want to teach your dog to bow when you bow, so the two of you can acknowledge an appreciative audience together). Expect this process to take 40-100 repetitions with most dogs.

In future posts, we’ll talk about other ways to get behavior and some common training pitfalls. In the meantime, please comment below with your training questions, stories, or brags. We look forward to hearing from you!

Capturing: Lazy Training at its Best

Capturing is one of the easiest ways to teach your dog a new behavior, and it’s perfect for lazy trainers! Perhaps this is why it’s my favorite method of training the basics, such as attention, sit, and lie down.

To capture a behavior, carry the clicker around the house with you. You can slide it in a pocket, put it on a lanyard around your neck, or use a string to make a clicker bracelet. Just make sure you’ve got it handy. Any time your dog does something you like, click the clicker and give your dog a reward. Rewards can be carried with you (perhaps by throwing some kibble in your pocket), kept handy in common areas of the house (a can of easy cheese lives on top of my bookshelf), or stashed ahead of time in strategic locations (hide the tennis ball in a flower pot when the dog’s not looking).

Capture as many behaviors as you can throughout the day! Remember, the clicker tells your dog he’s doing something right, so click anything and everything you like.

If your puppy dances into the room chewing on his toy and making it squeak, click and play with him! If your hyper adolescent dog lies down on his dog bed quietly instead of pacing around, click and give him a soothing massage. Does your dog do something cute that would make a wonderful trick? Click it and hand him a treat! This is a great way to teach tricks like “take a bow” (my dogs bow when I ask “Who’s your queen?”) or “say you’re sorry” (where the dog puts his head on his paws). Be generous, and click your dog for all the wonderful things he does throughout the day!

In the beginning stages of capturing, dogs often don’t know what they’re being clicked for. That’s okay! This is a normal part of the learning process. At some point, the light bulb will go off. The dog will start to offer the behaviors that have been clicked in the past, often somewhat tentatively as if asking, “is this right?” Yes! Excellent! Make sure you make a big deal over this, so he knows he’s on the right track.

Here’s a video of Dobby learning to bow. At the time of this video, he’d been clicked for bowing for about a month, and was starting to offer bows as a way to earn a treat. Note how when I accidentally click him for lying down, he begins offering downs instead.

Once your dog begins to offer a behavior regularly, you can put it on cue. We’ll talk about how to do this in future posts. In the meantime, have you ever tried to capture any behaviors? If so, what behaviors have you captured with your dog?