On Good Behavior LLC

Lures, Bribes and Rewards

I love the simplicity of lure and reward training, but I have found that there is one major drawback to this method: it encourages owners to bribe their dogs.

What is a bribe?
A bribe is something offered in hopes of getting what you want. The person (or dog) being bribed can then decide if it is worth his while. He may cooperate or he may just keep the bribe without doing what you wanted. Think about situations where we use bribes with people—sketchy border crossings, corrupt public officials etc. If you think about it, we use bribes in situations where service is terrible, and lo and behold, service continues to get worse. You wouldn’t think of bribing a border guard if things were going smoothly and you were being passed right through. It’s only when you are kept waiting for a long time and put through many hoops that it occurs to you that perhaps in this country a bribe would help. (I think I once paid a bribe to get into Guatemala, but then again maybe it was a legitimate fee…).

The moral of this story is that bribing always rewards inaction and inattention. If you have asked your dog to do something and he fails to comply, the worst thing you can do at that moment is to offer him food (or a toy or a car ride). This is paying your dog for refusing to listen. Quite quickly he will start to wait to see what is on offer before complying. Susan Garrett has a funny story about bribes in the mode of a Far Side cartoon on her blog http://susangarrettdogagility.com/2009/09/whos-shaping-who.html

What is a lure? 
A lure is a toy or treat used to show the dog how to do the desired behavior. For example, a treat is held in front of the dog’s nose and then drawn between his front legs. When he lies down, he is given the treat, which has now become a reward. When luring is used correctly, it is a quick and effective training method. However, there are two keys to using lures correctly: don’t use a lure to get your dog’s attention and stop using a lure as quickly as possible.

You should only use a lure during a training session where you already have the dog’s attention and you are working as a team. If the dog is distracted and you put a treat in front of his nose (or squeak a toy), then you are teaching him that ignoring you pays off. So get his attention first or move to a less distracting environment, then go ahead and teach a behavior by luring.

Once the dog will readily perform the behavior for a treat, you must fade the lure so that the dog learns to respond to a verbal or hand signal. If you continue to use the lure, the dog will become overly dependent on it and see the lure as part of the cue. To fade the lure, give a verbal command first, follow with the exact same hand gesture without the lure in your hand, then reward from your other hand or a pocket.

What is a reward?
A reward is something given as a thank-you after the behavior has occurred. Tipping a waiter is a reward. Rewards increase the chance that the desired behavior will happen again—that waiter is likely to provide good service if you return to the restaurant.

I find that most people tend to lure for too long and then reward too stingily, which leads to a dog who wants proof that he is going to be paid. Try thinking of the process this way:

  • Luring: 10-100 times until the dog is smoothly executing the behavior.
  • Acquisition: Dog is still learning what the word/ hand signal mean. Practice in a wide variety of locations and with distractions. Reward each correct response, but don’t show the reward in advance. The reward stays in your pocket or on the counter until is has been earned. Make sure to vary the reward and use life rewards. Expect to stay at this stage for a couple thousand repetitions or a few months. 
  • Polishing: Reward only the better responses—faster, straighter, around more difficult distractions etc. This teaches your dog to try harder. Often, you will be at the polishing stage at home, but still at the acquisition stage in public.
  • Maintenance: Jackpot excellent responses occasionally. Turn your dog into a gambler. Use a wide variety of rewards including life rewards (walks, car rides etc).

And then there is the 20,000 dollar question: What if my dog doesn’t listen and I’m tempted to bribe?

First of all, I really try to avoid asking more of my dogs than they are capable of doing at their current level of training. I don’t want to be giving an eight year-old kid a calculus test. So prior to giving a command, please do ask yourself if it is reasonable to expect your dog to understand what you are asking.

However, there will be times that either I misjudge their level of understanding or they understand just fine but would rather do something else. If this is the case, I can either wait them out (if you don’t sit, I’m not putting your leash on) or physically assist (gently place the dog in a sit, go get them if they didn’t come etc). If neither of these is an option, I’ll be very careful not to get stuck in the same situation again as this is how dogs learn to ignore commands.

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