When you are training your dog, it can seem easy to pull out a cookie and lure your dog to do something. But you need to ask yourself what learning will be taking place in the dog’s mind. Generally, it is “do nothing and I will get rewarded for it”. Luring can take away the learning for the dog as the trainer will “help” by showing the cookie and directing the dog.

Shaping as I learned many years ago, creates a “thinking dog” whose actions guide his understanding of what the behaviour we want is. We layer the training and reinforce his great choices in a timely fashion. With shaping, the dog is in control of the learning. I learned through this process how much joy that gives my dog and me and is why I continue to teach and train this way!

Many people want to stick to luring because shaping can seem difficult, but we can break this learning down for ourselves by starting with simple games. My ItsYerChoice game is an example… we are shaping our dog that he can get what he wants, by doing what we want, all in a simple fun game. Learning more about shaping is such a fantastic way to grow as trainers and our dog’s learning grows with us. Training with shaping creates thinking dogs who can reach their full potential of brilliance. Another compelling reason to embrace shaping is that if we are not shaping our dogs, they are shaping us.

We acknowledge that there are benefits to using food lures, but there are also drawbacks to be aware of.

Benefits of Using Food Lures

  • Appears to be fast (but did the dog really learn the response or just follow the cookie?).
  • Appears to be easy.
  • Requires little understanding of dog training – anyone can use it or be taught to use it.
  • Has a history of relative success (relative compared to the amazing and complex behaviours Bob and Marion Bailey trained animals to do with shaping).

Drawbacks of Using Food Lures

  • Relies on “pattern training” rather than the dog’s understanding. Therefore trainers often advise you to repeat this cookie cutter technique x numbers of days.
  • Rewards the inactivity of the dogs mind (if you do nothing I will lure you).
  • Becomes a habit – what you learn first you learn best.
  • Makes you a prisoner to the motivation value the lure has for the dog (either high or low).
  • Limits the dog’s learning potential (there are many complex behaviours that can not be taught with luring).
  • Limits the dog’s responses.
  • Often reinforces behaviours you never want to see repeated (example: hesitation, non-compliance, distractibility).

Buzz, whose shaping I journaled that went on to become my book “Shaping Success“.

Questions to Consider

  • What does the sight of a food lure reward for your dog?
  • Does food luring facilitate learning or are food lures limiting the learning potential for your dog?
  • Food luring relies on pattern training rather than teaching the dogs understanding; therefore you must repeat the responses many thousands of times with a lure before the dog starts to show some ability to reproduce the response without the lure.
  • Knowing all that we now know about food lures, is food luring really faster or easier?
  • How much drive did it transfer to the behaviour?

Training Reminder: Be aware of what RESPONSE you are rewarding each time you give out a cookie or toy.

What did you reward? Ask yourself what was that cookie for? Do I want to see that behaviour repeated? What did you intend to reinforce? Does the dog have clarity in what you are asking of him?

Rescue Bulldog mix Tater-Salad who many of you met recently, enjoying shaping with Kim and learning “get in”.

When shaping, if you bring the reward out ONLY after getting the desired response, you are getting transfer of value. It is classical conditioning at work within the context of operant conditioning (shaping). The dog pairs the value of the great reward with the work. Soon the dog gets all jazzed up at just the thought of being able to work (play) with you.

12 Steps to Making a Change

  1. Start to think “look for a response to reward” rather than “try to create a finished behaviour.” Re-train the way you think and respond to your dog’s training challenges. Try to re-condition the reflex to “find a cookie” when your dog struggles or is doing something you DON’T want him to do.
  2. You must constantly ask yourself; has my dog got D.A.S.H? If not, why? Resist the temptation to go for the food lure but rather work on creating “D” — changing the dog’s arousal state by changing his physiology (move!).
  3. You must be committed to practising mechanical skills prior to attempt to train anything with your dog. A break down in your mechanics, any time where the dog is left without focus from you, is equivalent to a “time out” in training. This continual bouts of inadvertent punishment on your part are shutting down your dog’s interest in training with you.
  4. Think, plan, do, review! All training has meaning. Document your training and if it is not working you will be able to identify why and readjust (if you always do what you’ve always done you will always get what you’ve always gotten right?!)
  5. You must accept the fact that the dog is allowed to make mistakes. Mistakes help identify that which is not going to be rewarded (Caution: be aware of the mistakes that are self rewarding).
  6. You must become more aware of the fact a response has a beginning, a middle and an ending and therefore you must be extremely particular about what you are rewarding. Do not absent-mindedly pass food to your dog!
  7. You must identify the differences between placement of the reward and food luring. Carefully place your rewards is a way to exponentially improve your training, luring has the potential of hindering learning.
  8. Timing, criteria and rate of reinforcement; this is the answer to all of your questions. Use video to become your own best critic.
  9. The dog must learn to ignore the food. Food is just another distraction in your training environment. If your dog is constantly following or nudging your hand he is telling you it is time to play another round of ItsYerChoice.
  10. You must learn to not respond to any dog that is not ignoring food (i.e. you must not “help” your dog by moving the hand with food in it out of the way as this actually is more exciting for the dog!).
  11. The dog must learn that you will allow him to offer responses on his own (play games like ItsYerChoice and Crate Games to help that happen).
  12. You must accept that your dog is only a reflection of your abilities as a dog trainer. Areas your dog needs work show a lack of understanding in your dog training fundamentals. It is all too easy to pull out a cookie and lure but what learning will be taking place in the dog’s mind. Split, split, split your training into layers.

While training a dog I constantly evaluate what the dog may view as having “value” during our work and play together. When a high-value reward is properly paired with a behaviour, that behaviour takes on the value of that reward (thus transfer of value). The dog is conditioned to view the behaviour as equal in reinforcement value to the reward itself. This is more fun for your dog and more fun for you!

When shaping, the effective application of science can allow our dogs to learn faster and have even more fun. My next blog post covers more on shaping with a video showing how the effective application of science allows our dogs to learn ten times faster. .

If you are a member of “Lurers Anonymous” you are in good company! Look at what you are luring and why, and be aware of what you are reinforcing when you are giving your dog cookies. Consider shaping to be one of the greatest gifts to give your dog … the ability to think, experiment, learn, and reach his full potential of brilliance. Let me know in the comments your thoughts on luring versus shaping.

Today I am grateful to be presenting alongside Dr. Sherman Canapp, Dr. Debra Canapp and Dr. Chris Zink this weekend for the Sports Medicine Conference for Performance Dog Owners in Maryland.