These days it seems everyone is advocating the use of Positive Reinforcement Training over the outdated Aversive training methods. In Positive Reinforcement Training, the desired behaviour is lured, marked, and rewarded using a High Value Food treat or other such reward.
But did you know that that once your dog understands what is being asked of him and you keep rewarding with H.V. treats you are actually going to create other training problems? Did you know that once your dog is performing the behaviour using the reward that you need to Fade The Lure?
Today I explain to you why you need to do this, how to successfully Fade the Lure, and the proper sequencing procedure for Positive Reinforcement Training.
The High Value Treat
Using “bait” is a great tool to use when we first introduce a behaviour that is new to a dog. Whether it is a puppy learning how to sit for the first time or if it is a mature dog that is learning SIT for the first time, a High Value food treat is a great tool to help with the teaching process. But there is more than one way to use High Value Treats in Training and unless you use them correctly you will actually be causing some of the training difficulties that your dog may be encountering.
Lure and Reward Versus Mark and Reward: These are two separate training concepts. Do you know the difference between them and how and when to use them?
Lure and Reward
This element of training involves using a High Value treat held out just in front the dog’s nose and face to lure or lead him through the steps of the behaviour that you are introducing. Then the dog is given the lure as a reward for having completed the behaviour. This training element is not intended to be used for longer than those first few beginning learning attempts because when it is used longer than that, it causes the dog to only perform the behaviour IF the food is presented to them first. When does a reward start becoming counterproductive? When it starts being equated with an expectation.
Owners commonly make the mistake of remaining for too long in the luring phase of training and then blaming the “short comings” of the Positive Training System as the reason for why their dog fails to perform the behaviour unless a food lure is present. The lack of understanding of how this system was designed to work is also one of the main reasons why people so often choose to use a more aversive training methods with their dog despite the mounting evidence showing that positively trained dogs form deeper and stronger bonds with their owners and perform the required behaviours more reliably than when they have been force trained.
Dr. Ian Dunbar suggests that food lures should not be used for more than 6 attempts when teaching a new behaviour. He explains that when food lures are used for longer than 6 attempts they stop being seen as rewards and start being viewed as bribes. This results in behaviours that will only be done when food is present. To keep this from happening, the training must make the shift from luring to marking in a timely manner.
There are only two circumstances when you should be using a luring to persuade a dog to perform a behaviour:
- When you first introduce a new behaviour;
- When you need to shift and capture his attention (as in “Don’t look at that darned squirrel, WATCH ME and the yummy treat I have in my hand!”).
Once your dog is performing the new behaviour for the reward it is time to begin shifting the training to the Mark and Reward phase of training.
Capture, Mark, and Reward
In this element of training once a verbal and or visual cue (hand gesturing) has been issued the trainer waits for the dog to do the behaviour on its own and then the behaviour is “captured” and marked by giving the dog a reward. The reward is only given after the dog makes the choice to show signs of beginning to do the behaviour and then later to complete the behaviour.
Your success rate at this point will become contingent on how well you time your rewards (remember, you have about a 1.5 second window of opportunity to make the connection between a performed behaviour and marking it), and how diligently you practice performing the task. It will take many repetitions to create a reliably taught behaviour.
From here you can move on to adding a verbal cue to the behaviour by saying the cue before the dog does the behaviour and then mark the behaviour with a reward but only after the dog performs the behaviour.
Far too often owners assume that just because they witness their dogs perform a behaviour a few times that learning the behaviour is now complete. Actually, it only means that learning the behaviour is in the process of being ingrained.
Until a cued behaviour is replicated consistently and reliably even in new places, under new circumstances, and even under high levels of stress and distraction, a behaviour is not learned. Compliance to a cue completed only in certain places or under certain circumstances means that the behaviour is not understood that you want the dog to perform this behaviour all the time and under all conditions. If your dog listens and complies with your cues in the house but not when it is outdoors then this demonstrates that your dog does not fully understand the concept of this behaviour.
This is an advanced training technique that builds on, and is related to, being able to capture only parts of full behaviour that is offered by a dog. Shaping is used when a dog will not yet produce the full behaviour while capturing and marking is used when a dog fully completes the behaviour.
If you cue a dog to sit and the dog performs the behaviour then you capture and mark it with a reward. If a dog does not fully perform the behaviour but begins the motions of lowering itself towards the floor when he is cued then THIS behaviour is marked to signal to the dog that he is on the right track toward the behaviour that you are requesting.
So shaping relies on catching parts of the whole behaviour. It is nothing more than a way of breaking down a cue into much smaller steps to make it easier for a dog to understand what is being asked of him. Some dogs catch on to training cues very quickly while some dogs seem to struggle with understanding what it is that humans want them to do. Shaping allows us to direct and encourage the dog to keep moving towards the full and complete behaviour.
Why Even Bother Lure Training?
So then you may be asking why bother to lure train at all if you are just going to have to fade using the lure? There are benefits to be gained from lure training.
One big benefit of using luring to train for a behaviors is that the action of your hand when you are luring the dog into position turns into the hand signal that you will ultimately use to cue the behavior. The same motion of moving a treat from the ground upwards in front of the dog’s face to lure a SIT turns into the palm up hand motion swung to cue the dog to SIT.
Also, luring a dog to do a behavior is very non-physical, non-aversive, and force free way to train a puppy or a mature dog. Force free training allows you to not only develop a trust bond with your dog but it allows you to form a deep relationship bond with your dog. Force free training becomes a win-win situation for both of you. You get the dog to perform the behaviour and he learns the how to perform the behaviour without feeling stressed, afraid, or annoyed.
There is a saying, “If you insist on trying to teach a pig to dance, it will serve to annoy the pig and you will surely get very dirty in the process”. Training using aversive methods and forceful methods will become very much like trying to teach a pig to dance. Find ways to work with your dog, not against it.
To Fade The Lure
Now that we understand that while luring is an excellent tool for helping dogs to understand what we want them to do, we also understand that the longer a lure is used to train, the more dependent a dog grows on needing/wanting that reward in order to produce the behaviour. Also, the longer we use the lure more difficult it will be to shift to using only a verbal cue to get the dog to produce the behaviour.
If you have been using a lure for too long expect that you are going to encounter a few bumps along the way while you make the shift from luring to verbally cueing a dog to do a behaviour.
When your dog has gotten a treat every time he sat (referred to as a continuous schedule of reinforcement) he now has learned to expect the treat for producing the cued behaviour. Expect that as soon as you start holding back on the reward (the re-enforcer) at first he may stop producing the behaviour (referred to as extinction of a behaviour) because it is unrewarding for him to keep doing the behaviour.
So when beginning to fade the lure, it is important that gradually fade the reward by intermittently rewarding for producing the behaviour. The dog will keep performing the behaviour based on the premise that he might get a treat. This avoids extinction from happening. Eventually you want the dog to be performing the behaviour solely using a verbal command and/or hand signal. The reward is verbal praise.
Putting All The Steps Together
Before you can fade the lure you have to make sure that you were using luring correctly in the first place. Too many people have compliance issues with their dog because they never faded the lure when they should have or they never lured correctly in the first place.
If it turns out that you were not using luring correctly, go back to square one and lure the dog following these steps BEFORE you attempt at fading the lure.
How To Lure
- With a High Value Treat in hand (a treat that cannot be gotten in any other way other than compliance to your request) show the treat to your dog by holding it near his nose.
- Then without giving the dog the treat or allowing him to take it from your hand, let the dog lick and taste the treat.
- Once the dog is interested in the treat, slowly move your hand in such a way that it positions your dog to do the behaviour that you want.
- Add a verbal cue as the dog is performing the behaviour.
For example, if are teaching your dog to sit, then start with hand near the floor and have your dog follow the treat in your hand moving upward until the treat is up over his head. In order for the dog to see and follow the treat with his nose he must lean back causing his hind end to lower to the ground. You have now lured your dog into the sitting position.
- Now you give the dog the reward and additionally mark the behaviour using verbal praise; good.
- Practice this lured movement a few more times. Luring should not be used beyond 5 or 6 attempts at teaching the behaviour. If your dog is not getting the idea after half a dozen tries then you need to change your training approach.
- Once the dog begins to effortlessly follow the treat and slumps into a sitting position, it is time to shift to Capture, Mark, and Reward.
How To Capture, Mark, and Reward
- Still having the treat in your hand, cue your dog using the verbal cue. Use the same hand gesture to prompt the dog but do not give the treat to the dog yet.
- Watch for your dog to comply to the cue and do the behaviour.
- If the dog performs the behaviour immediately capture and mark the behaviour with the reward. Also issue the cue good.
- If the dogs fails to do the behaviour, put the dog back into the starting position and repeat the Capture, Mark, and Reward process.
If the dog fails consistently to perform the behaviour analyze and look for the difficulty. Often owners blame the dog for failure to comply when usually the problem is operator error. Does your dog truly understand what you want him to do? Are you consistent with your body language and prompts? Did you deliver the reward fast enough during the luring stage?
If your dog is still not performing, try waiting longer after you issue the verbal cue and prompt. Your dog may need more time to process the information and figure out what behaviour to give you. You can try reissuing the cue or prompt but avoid too many empty repetitions or you are inadvertently teaching your dog that he does not need to comply. Too many verbal cues issued and your dog begins to tune out the cue.
How To Fade Using The Lure Into A Hand Signal Or Prompt
- Without a treat in your prominent hand (the treat is kept hidden in your non-prominent hand), “lure” your dog into position as if there was a treat in your hand.
- Add a verbal cue.
- If the dog complies immediately mark the behaviour by feeding the treat from the non-prominent hand and mark the behaviour with a verbal GOOD.
- Repeat this process a few times until the dog complies effortlessly with your cue.
- Begin to make your hand gestures less lure-like and more cue like.
How To Begin To Fade The Lure
- At this point if your dog truly understands the expected behaviour then you can begin to fade the use of a food reward. It will be replaced with verbal mark of good.
- Issue your dog a verbal cue and at the same time give your dog a hand signal prompt.
- Wait for the dog to process the information and offer compliance.
- When the dog complies to the cue offer the verbal mark of good but give a food reward only every other time. The verbal cue of good is issued every time. Only the food reward is fed intermittently.
- Eventually, with enough practice, you can fade the food reward entirely and the only marker being issued is the verbal praise good.
Trouble Shooting Training Difficulties
When your dog is having difficulty in performing the desired task or he is performing them unreliably then perhaps you need to look at some other areas of training that can be causing issues with the training process.
If your dog is compliant in the house but not outside then your dog thinks that he only needs to be compliant indoors. You can avoid this from happening by practicing the behaviour in many different places, under differing conditions, under varying stress levels, and with various levels of distractions going on. This is referred to as generalized the training. The dog learns that SIT means sitting in all places and at all times.
Dogs do not tend to infer or generalize very well on their own so you must make sure to train under as many different conditions as you can to ensure that a behaviour is truly learned.
Proofing a behaviour refers to asking a dog to perform a behaviour under increasingly more challenging conditions. When a dog learns a behaviour in one location move him to the next level of learning by practicing the behaviour in a new place with some new distractions and stressors. Remember to use the watch me command to focus the dog’s attention onto you.
When you are first teaching a dog to perform a behaviour in a new place, it is acceptable to reserve a few treats for the watch me cue. You can fade out using rewards for the actual behaviour but the occasional redirection treat will be necessary at first. Eventually you can fade the use of those treats too and just use the verbal cue to watch me. Watch me should mean watch me and not watch the treat!
I often hear people justify their reluctance to use Positive Rewarding because they feel that their dog should comply based solely on their willingness to make their human happy. This just is not the going to happen. All dogs require some motivation and reward system when they are learning a new behaviour.
The level of motivations and willingness to comply differs from breed to breed. Dogs hardwired to work with humans like sporting breed dogs or herding dogs are extremely willing to be compliant. It is part of their nature. These dogs tend to train quickly and show interest in doing what you asked them to do.
Those of us who share our lives with Snow Dogs have our work cut out for us when it comes to training. The sad sobering reality is that most Northern Breed dogs really do not care that much if their behaviour pleases us or not (yes, there are a few notable exceptions to this rule).
When we issue a cue their thought process tends to lean towards the question, “What’s in it for me and is it fun?” If it is not riveting and fun they will most likely choose to blow off your cues. The Law of Competing Motivators is alive and well when it comes to training Huskies. This is the reality of sharing your life with a Snow Dog.
That does not mean that you should give up on training your dog. It just means that you are going to need more patience, more repetitions, thick skin, and a really good sense of humour when it comes to training your dog.
If you use positive reinforcement, are diligent about proofing, and you give clear and consistent instructions you will create a strong bond with your Snow Dog that is built of mutual respect, trust, and love.
As always, we welcome your comments, questions, and stories regarding this topic. When we share our wisdom and our stories we may be helping someone who is currently struggling with their Snow Dog.
Helping ALL Snow Dogs … one owner at at time.