Lure-reward training is sometimes confused with clicker training, but they are not the same thing. While the two methods can at times be combined, clicker training in its purest form does not use lures.
A lure is a small reinforcer, such as a toy or treat, that is used as a “magnet” to position the dog. Lures allow trainers to get behavior quickly. They can be quite useful in jump-starting behavior, and are simple for a novice trainer to use and understand. In our Beginning Obedience and Puppy Kindergarten classes, we sometimes use lures to teach position behaviors such as sit and down, although I also give students the option to use shaping or capturing (more on these methods in later posts).
While luring can be quite effective to prompt behavior, it can also create some problems. The biggest problem we see with lure-trained dogs is a reliance on the reward. The dog will do the behavior as long as the owner has a lure in her hand, but the second her hand is empty the dog no longer complies. This is fairly simple to avoid, and can also easily be fixed.
To avoid reliance on a lure, it’s important not to over-use the lure. Think of the toy or treat you’re using to lure your dog as a reward instead of a bribe. You want to reward the dog for completing the behavior, not bribe him to do it. A good rule of thumb is to use a lure 3-5 times, then switch to an empty hand (making the same motion), producing the reward after the dog has completed the behavior. If your dog will only do the behavior with a lure, be patient and give him a minute to think. Often after he’s had a few seconds to puzzle out what you want, he’ll do it. If he still can’t focus, consider whether he is being overfaced: is he too distracted? Not motivated enough (perhaps you’re not using very exciting treats)? Stressed?
If your dog has already learned that he should only respond when you hold a bribe in front of him, this is still fixable but will take a bit more work. I like to reverse expectations. Use a very high-value reward that your dog is very motivated to work for, such as a favorite toy or a chunk of chicken or roast beef. Show the dog this exciting tidbit and ask him to do whatever behavior you’re having trouble with. When he does, praise and pet him enthusiastically, but do not give him the reward.
Now, set the reward to the side, perhaps on a table or bookshelf nearby. Let your dog see that you’ve put it away and that your hands are empty. Ask him to do the behavior. He probably won’t at first, but wait him out. If he does, click your clicker and immediately grab the reward off the table to give to him.
A dog who becomes reliant on a lure to do the behavior is not stubborn or stupid. He’s telling you that you’ve been a poor trainer. Thank your dog for this valuable information, and plan to avoid problems in the future by not becoming over-reliant on the lure and by making sure that your dog gets better rewards for responding to an empty hand than he does when you’re holding something good. If an empty hand always predicts wonderful things for your dog, you’ll find that your pooch is able to be weaned off the lure in no time at all!
In future posts, we’ll talk about other training methods, how to prevent common training problems, and how to reward your dog. In the meantime, have you used a lure to train your dog? Were you able to successfully fade that lure, or does your dog still have a “show me the money” attitude about complying? What training problems do you need help solving? We look forward to hearing from you!