Last week I started off my series on “How to Get Behavior” with shaping. Now I’m going to explain a bit about luring and how to use a lure to teach behavior.
The term luring refers to the use of a desired reward to coax the dog into achieving the desired behavior. The “desired reward” is nearly always a food treat, but it is possible to lure with toys. Luring can be used to teach many behaviors, including sit, down, loose leash walking, and a lot of tricks.
How to Lure
I use food lures in my group training classes unless the owner is very concerned about the dog becoming dependant on a food lure. (More on that below.)
I teach “sit” by showing the dog a piece of food, moving it right in front of his nose, and lifting that piece of food up and towards the dog’s tail. This lifts the dog’s head up and back, resulting in his weight shifting from his front legs to his back legs. Nearly always, this causes the dog to sit. I then click and give the dog the treat.
After doing this three or four times, I get rid of the food lure. This is the most important step, yet it is the one that most owners skip! As soon as the dog has an idea that “bum on ground = I get the food”, I lure the dog with an empty hand, pretending that I have a cookie. The dog is now busy watching my hand as it goes up and over his head, and he sits. I click and give him a treat from my pocket or bait bag. The dog now understands a hand signal for “sit”. My fingers pinched together above his head, moving towards his hindquarters is the “green light” to sit.
As the dog becomes more proficient, I alter my hand signal to make it more and more obvious that I don’t have food until just lifting my hand up, palm facing up, cues the dog to “sit”. I can then add a verbal cue, if I am so inclined.
There are several things to keep in mind when luring. It’s not the right solution to every training problem. Here are some of the potential pitfalls…
Becoming dependent on food being visible. This is the number one issue with luring. Owners complain, “My dog only sits if I have a treat in my hand.” The good news is this can be prevented: as soon as you have the behavior, get rid of the food! Re-read my paragraph above: I only lure the dog three or four times before switching to an empty hand.
Scaring the dog. Simply put, it is unfair to lure a nervous or frightened dog. For example, when I teach agility classes, new students almost always try to lure their dogs over the agility equipment when the dog is clearly afraid of the obstacle and is not sure what to do. It is only okay to lure a happy, relaxed dog into something he is physically and mentally capable of doing. If the dog is unsure about how to walk on a narrow plank, your best bet is to shape the dog to walk on it literally one step at a time. This will build the dog’s confidence up about that object.
Although I do use luring with my students, it is an approach I use rather infrequently with my own dogs. I am patient and possess the timing skills necessary to shape most behaviors with my dogs. There are some behaviors that I think can be trained faster and more easily with a lure, such as teaching a dog to “spin” in a tight circle, but for most other behaviors (including sit and down) I choose to capture them instead. More on that in my next post!