Written by Connie Cleveland-Nolan
I often hear people complain that “he only does it for the food.” Many of us have come to believe that we simply cannot train without food. The normal progression of training begins by (1) luring your dog with food (or a toy) to teach a behavior, and (2) rewarding your dog after he performs the behavior. Your dog comes to expect, or, at least, hope that a food or toy reward will be forthcoming.
A lure can be anything that has the power to attract, tempt, or entice your dog to perform a behavior. It is common for us to begin by luring our dog into the positions we desire (e.g., Sit, Down, Front, and Heel). Food is a lure when we guide a dog from front into a finish position.
Luring teaches a dog how to move his body to perform behaviors. If luring continues for too long, our dogs learn to chase the food in direct pursuit of the reward rather than responding to our command in order to earn a treat. Chasing the food quickly becomes the dog’s objective.
Whenever you use food in training, ask yourself whether your dog truly understands that performing the desired behavior is what is causing you to deliver the treat. The longer you use a lure in your training, the harder it will be to stop.
Your goal should be for the food to become the reward that comes after a behavior is performed; food should not entice your dog to do the behavior.
For example, if you hold a treat above your puppy’s nose and lure him into a sit, praise him and then deliver the treat, it will appear as if he is learning to sit for a reward. However, if you lure your puppy to sit too many times or over too long of a period, he may believe that he is being rewarded for chasing the food.
If you tell your puppy to sit, and he responds by promptly sitting, your command and his performance precedes your praise and delivery of the food. You will have rewarded what he did rather than luring him into the behavior or allowing him to chase the food.
As quickly as possible, all of the treats you give to your dog must become rewards.
I start to teach all dogs to come when called by putting them on a long line and taking them for a walk. When the dog becomes distracted, I call the dog, tug on the long line, praise the dog for coming, and then reward with a treat. Again, the reward comes after the behavior has been performed.
Luring vs. Rewarding
Are you unsure whether you are luring or rewarding?
Consider the times that your dog must move away from the treat to earn it. If you consistently feed your puppy in a crate, you have seen him run for the crate as soon as you pick up his bowl. This is a good example of moving away from a treat to earn it. Your puppy turns his back on what he wants, and runs to his crate knowing that his behavior will earn him the reward. This is an important concept and is more complex than luring. Other examples of moving away from a treat to earn a treat would be the broad jump and go-outs.
When I teach directed jumping, I set up two jumps and block the space between them with a gate. Such a set up provides the dog with two options, he can jump to the right, and he can jump to the left. In either case, he cannot come straight to me to earn his reward. He must get up from a sit, move toward the jump, take the jump, and come to me for his reward.
Alternatively, I have observed handlers throw a treat so that the dog has to get up from a sit and chase it. I have seen this technique used on the broad jump; handlers throwing a treat over the jump for the dog to chase and then eat when he lands on the other side. These techniques bypass the opportunity to teach a dog how to move away from what he wants to get what he wants. Instead, the dog just gets to chase food. The food assumes the power of a lure and ceases to be a reward.
The next time you train, think about how you are using every treat you deliver to your dog. Make a list of each instance and note the behavior your dog performed to earn the treat. The purpose of making the list is to help you identify instances when you lured your dog instead of saving the food to reward a job well done.
Next time you train, ask yourself:
Did he earn it for following the lure?
Was the treat in your hand while you were heeling?
Were you holding the treat in both hands as you lured him into a front?
Were you holding it over his head as you guided him into a finish?
Did he move away from the treat before he earned it?
You raised your hand up to give a drop signal and he dropped to the ground.
You sent him to go-out and then delivered a treat after he got there.
Did you use it as a reward?
You marked a behavior with a conditioned reinforcer indicating that your dog performed the behavior correctly followed by the delivery of a treat.
Make a note of any treats you give to a disinterested or unmotivated dog. Include treats that you give to your dog unannounced without preceding it with a conditioned reinforcer. These are probably the most ineffective treats of all.
Using food in training is reasonable as long as it is given as a reward for behavior performed correctly. Dogs are motivated to perform by positive reinforcement, However, Positive Reinforcement is not the only reason that dogs perform correctly. I believe there are four reasons that dogs do what we ask of them.
Why Dogs Perform Correctly
Positive Reinforcement: Dogs perform correctly in order to earn a reward. Rewards are generally delivered in the form of food, toys, and praise.
Negative Reinforcement: Dogs perform correctly in order to avoid something unpleasant. Negative reinforcement is something that a dog finds offensive. Used correctly, a dog knows how to stop and how to prevent the offensive action from occurring.*
Enjoyment of the activity: Some dogs love to heel, others love jumping or retrieving.
Habit: Dogs get in the habit of performing correctly with enough practice.
I want you to seriously consider the following two statements:
The most successful competition dogs enjoy the activity.
How did they come to enjoy it? It is true that some dogs are bred to enjoy certain activities such as jumping or retrieving. However, enjoyment also comes from being rewarded for performing. Soon, the activity itself becomes fun.
The most successful competition dogs are in the habit of performing correctly.
How did they develop the habit? Habit is the result of repetition, practice in a variety of locations and common sense proofing.
Ultimately, positive reinforcement used effectively, leads to a dog that enjoys the activities you are asking him to perform. Performing correctly becomes a dog’s habit because the activity itself is fun.
Do you see the progression? Luring → Rewarding → Enjoyment → Habit
I conducted a webinar on April 20th about this topic. If you are interested in receiving a link to a video of the webinar that you can watch on your own schedule, and as many times as you want, you may purchase it at https://www.onlineobediencetraining.com/.
*The following articles provide an in-depth discussion of Positive Reinforcement and Negative Reinforcement in the context of how dogs learn:
Positive Reinforcement: http://goo.gl/hKwoqf
Conditioned Reinforcers: http://goo.gl/Eiz8P9
Negative Reinforcement: http://goo.gl/oK8AzW
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