Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Power of Luring

The very first dog training technique that I was ever introduced to was luring with food.  I learned, after my first week of training class, that I needed to bring treats that my dog actually cares about in a distracting setting.  I learned how to put the food on his nose and show him how to move in heel, how to move into a sit, how to move into a down, etc.

I'll admit, I didn't really know which way was up at that point and I had no idea how I was going to end up with a dog who would do what I asked without food on his nose.  And at that point I wasn't really even thinking of those sorts of things.

So, I lured with food, and lured and lured and lured and lured and lured.  By the end of our Advanced Basic class, Speedy could do most of what I asked, as long as I had treats in my hand.  I still wasn't even wondering how to get him to work for me without food.

Later on we got involved in Rally, and when my instructor suggested that we compete, I decided to try.  Of course, one cannot compete with food in one's hands.  Our instructor taught us to always work with food in our hands, so the dog would always expect it to be there.  That way the dog would never suspect, in the competition ring, that there might not be food in our hands.

That did work, for the most part.  But the whole thing made me somewhat nervous.  I was aware of the fact that I had no food in my hands and I was worried that Speedy would know it, too.  Working in the ring without food in my hands never really was an issue for Speedy, but it was a cause of stress to me.

Some time later I was introduced to the concept of shaping, and I fell into the mentality that luring was bad, that it created a dog who could not think, and that I should avoid luring at all costs.  If I absolutely had to use it, I could, but it should be used only sparingly, if at all.

However, I had initially learned to train using lures and it had worked fairly well.  Often trying to shape a behavior seemed like a cumbersome option.  There are definitely certain behaviors that I prefer to shape or capture, but I would say that I start out with luring for the vast majority of the behaviors that I train.

It was Maddie who really opened my eyes to the power of the lure.  Yes - I said that - the power of the lure!  Maddie was initially a slow learner.  And I do mean slow.  There were a few behaviors that it took her literally years to master.  These were relatively simple behaviors that most dogs typically pick up on within a few weeks.  Granted, I did not have as much training experience at that point.  I like to think now that she would have come along faster if I had been a more experienced trainer, but I don't actually know that she would have.

I literally had to lure Maddie - with food - over and over and over.  Every repetition, for a long, long time.  If I tried to fade the food, at first, she would refuse to budge.  She knew whether I had a treat in my had or not!  Where Speedy had quickly gotten to the point where I could fake him out a large percentage of the time, Maddie certainly did not.  If I tried to shape, she would lie down and stay there!  Luring with food was really the only way to get her motivated.

I got to a point where I thought she would never be able to do anything if I did not have food in my hands.  But she proved me wrong.  When she was good and ready to work for me without food in my hands, she did.  She got to the point where she simply did not need the lures anymore.  Whatever learning had to take place for her to get to that point had taken place, and she became capable of learning through shaping, capturing, and targeting.

And at that point, I realized that I needed to re-examine conventional wisdom on lures.  I had been told many things about food lures - that they only teach a dog to follow food, that they don't allow a dog to think, that one must only lure a total of three times and then drop the lure, that using lures will create a dog who can only follow a lure.  My experience, though limited at the time, told me that none of those things could possibly be true.  Maddie had been lured for ages.  Yet, she reached a point where she could respond to cues fluently without food present.  She had become an Agility partner who was solid, consistent, thinking, and competent - even without food in the ring.  How could this be when lures should have made her completely food dependent, unable to think, and unable to function without food present?

The conclusion that I have come to is that luring is a very good, highly effective, and very useful training tool that, like any training tool, can be used incorrectly.  Also, the best use of lures may vary from one dog to another.  Where Maddie needed to be lured for a very long time on certain behaviors, Dean picked those same behaviors up relatively quickly and needed much less luring.

Also, there is a need, when using luring as a training tool, to systematically fade the food.  Use of food in training, like luring, often gets a bad reputation.  People try using food to train, find that the dog will only work for food, and then blame the food.  I am convinced that neither the lure, nor the food itself, is really the problem.  I believe that the problem is a failure to fade the lure/food properly.

In a recent discussion of food on a list of which I am a member, a poster said the following:  "Feeding at the wrong time or delivering the food in the wrong position, luring for too long, luring without really training are all liabilities." - Vicki Ronchette (Quote used with permission)  This statement was actually the inspiration for this blog post, so thank you, Vicki, for making me really think about this!

I agree wholeheartedly, and I have done all of this myself at one time or another.  When I first started training with Speedy, I really did lure without training.  There was no plan, I had no set goals in mind.  He really was just following food.  I can't say it really did him any harm, but training didn't start to happen until I began to develop goals and to think about the means that I planned to use to reach them.

On the other hand, how long is "too long"?  I would say that depends entirely on the dog.  What is the best way to fade the food effectively, while taking care not to decrease the dog's enthusiasm and motivation?  Again, that depends on the dog. 

I like to do something that is rather controversial.  When I start to train heeling (on right and left), at first I literally have the dog follow food.  I don't really want the dog to think at that point!  I want the dog to actually feel, on a purely physical level, what moving in heel is like.  After I have done that enough to familiarize the dog with the behavior, I move into luring the dog into position and then remove the food and c/t for choosing to make eye contact, or lure the dog into position and then move a step or two forward and c/t the dog for choosing to come along.  I do move away from luring, but not until the dog has had a chance to get a good feel for where we are going.

When I started to train Tessa's jumping, I was strongly encouraged not to lure her, but let her choose to take the jumps.  Problem was, it was too much thinking for her and it wasn't working.  I started using peanut butter on the end of a spoon to lure her over, and she started to jump with some enthusiasm.  After doing that for several weeks, I allowed her the chance to offer the behavior and she began to do so.

Lures need to be used intelligently.  They need to be used to move the dog in the direction of knowing a trained behavior.  They need to be used as long as the dog needs them, but no longer than the dog needs them!  I feel that they need to be mixed in with exercises that do allow the dog to do some independent thinking.  At the same time I am luring initial heelwork, I am also working on games like Doggie Zen, which encourage the dog to figure out what is desired independently.

In spite of the fact that I lured Speedy rather mindlessly for about two years, in the end he learned to carry out behaviors on cue, without lures, in various settings, he learned to think, and he is certainly not a dog who can only follow food.  He is a great example of the power of the lure, and of the fact that even if the handler should use luring incorrectly for a time, good results can occur.

End results of good luring:

Luring will remain a training tool that I value highly, and use readily.  And, hopefully, as I gain even more experience using lures, I will learn to use them even better.

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