A blog about dog training and dog breeding…and other sundry matters

Posts tagged ‘luring’

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: An Inconsistent Approach to Dog Training

So tonight I took Gretchen into the yard to train her for the first time in many weeks.   Since my work schedule went crazy in early April, my poor dogs’ training suffered.  Now that my schedule has regained a bit of sanity, it’s now frightfully hot.  My training is still restricted, but this time to indoor work at night. That’s the joy of living in the tropics.

Although Gretchen has retained quite a bit of training, I’m appalled at how much she has left to learn!  Yikes.  She hasn’t learned the formal recall (her informal one is quite good, at least in my yard), and she hasn’t learned the heel, either.  She’s seven months old.

Gretchen does her sits and downs pretty well in the house.  She’ll sit out in the garden on cue, but is VERY reluctant to go into a down.

It is not uncommon for dogs to perform behaviors perfectly on cue in one location but not seem to understand the same cue in another.  An extreme example would be the dog that will give you a sit very quickly and enthusiastically at home, but once he’s at the vets or in some other new environment, he suddenly has no idea what sit means.

The dog is not being stubborn or “hard ears.”  The real reason for this annoying and sometimes embarrassing breakdown in training is simple:  dogs do not generalize.  “Sit” in your living room doesn’t necessarily mean “sit” in your kitchen, in your backyard, front yard, the vets, etc.

So, with Gretchen I took a deep breath, swallowed my pride, admitted that I am inconsistent with my work, and went back to basics.  When she was a babe of about five weeks, I taught her the down by capturing the behavior.  Now that she’s older and had already learned the down, I decided to root around in my training arsenal and try a different approach.  I tried luring.

Now I’m not a huge fan of luring because I feel that it adds more steps to the learning process, at least the way I use luring; and if it’s not done correctly, the dog could become dependent upon the food lure in your hand.  In order for luring to be effective in the long run, it is essential that the food lure be faded as quickly as possible within the training session.

As it turned out, I had to lure only twice before Gretchen caught on.  After two attempts I took away the food but continued using the downward motion of my hand (as though I had food in my hand), and added the “down” cue.  She performed beautifully and consistently.

Alas, it was late in the afternoon and the mosquitoes descended upon us, threatening to exsanguinate me.  I ended the session and returned to the house with my dog.

Taking an Intermediate Dog Back to Beginners

How many times have you trained in your living room, and your dog performed beautifully, but failed to obey when you took him out in public? 

There are several reasons for that.  Perhaps the dog is over-aroused, distracted, doesn’t find the cue convenient to execute at that precise moment (you are probably trying to get him to down near poop, or something equally disgusting), or he just may not know the cue properly.

Yesterday Tuvok and Gretchen went to SAR training then to agility.  Tuvok is my white German Shepherd puppy, whom I’m hoping will become one of Jamaica’s first SAR dogs.  He performed his sits and downs admirably.  Today when I worked him in the yard, which I rarely do, he just would not down. 

I took him inside and lured the down once more for about three times before fading the lure.  I am not a big fan of luring, but there are times when it is appropriate.  Tuvok knows his downs in the house, but for some reason didn’t want to do them in my yard.  

Once he got the downs fluently without the lure in the house, I took him outside once more.  He would not down.  I stayed outside, but lured the down once more for about three times, then I faded the lure and asked for the down with the hand signal.  He performed this time.

Sometimes when a dog doesn’t do a behavior on cue in a strange location, you have to go back to baby steps.  Although the back yard isn’t strange to Tuvok, he finds lying on dirt and grass strange because he’s accustomed to lying on tiles and wood floors in doors.  He is an indoor dog.  As he will be a working dog, it is vital that he complies with cues immediately when they are given to him.

How does one know when to Shape and when to Lure?

I am a big fan of shaping behaviors when I train my dogs.  I wasn’t always a fan, partly because I thought I’d have to wait forever for the dog to offer me a behavior that I could click and treat.  Because I’m the sort of person who likes quick results, I thought shaping just wouldn’t work. Shaping is a process where an animal is rewarded for performing small, incremental steps that he’ll build on to produce a complete behavior.

Instead of shaping, I used luring to train my two adult GSDs.  I was new to clicker training at the time, and obviously didn’t appreciate the merits of shaping.  I lured the dogs by holding food in my hand to get them to perform a behavior, like a sit or a down.  It worked because the dogs learned quickly.  I was very fortunate, though, that my two dogs didn’t fall into the trap that most dogs fall into:  they rely on the food in the trainer’s hand as their cue.  Once the food isn’t present, the behavior is no longer forth-coming.

Both of my puppies, Gretchen and Tuvok, learned their sits through shaping, and both have fast, reliable sits.  The downs have proven to be a bit more challenging, partly because I have been inconsistent with their training. 

When shaping does not “work”

Gretchen’s down is now on cue, but she still needs a lot more practice before I’d consider this behavior “fluent on cue.”  Tuvok, however, is a bit slower at offering the down.  I would click and toss his treats when he offered a down, and he’d get up for the treat.  I’d then expect him to go back into a down so that I could repeat the process.  I found that he would be slow at settling back into the down.  He had to sniff around first, then go check out something at the other side of the room, then he’d sit and look at me before sliding into a down. 

In an effort to teach this behavior quickly, I started putting the behavior on cue.  Did I mention that I love quick results?  What should have been a five-minute session easily turned into 15 minutes as I waited for the boy to resettle.  Then I had an epiphany one evening when I took Tuvok to a quiet spot in the parking lot of a shopping center to train.  He gave me sits on cue, but was not offering me downs, whether on or off cue.  He may have been overstimulated with the new environment.  At any rate, the cue “down” meant absolutely nothing to him.  I suspected that he hadn’t really learned the down properly, and I realized that I needed to back up a few steps. 

Luring with a twist

Instead of shaping this time, I decided to lure, because I suspected that would help him with his concentration issues.  I also needed Tuvok to learn this behavior very quickly.  I did mention that I like quick results.

I lured with food for about three repetitions with Tuvok, but I did something different this time:  I lured him with the food in my right hand, but once he was in the down, I offered the treat with my left hand.  The idea was that lure would not become a bribe.  After three repetitions, I gave the lure with my right hand without the food, clicked and treated with my left hand.

Within minutes he was offering me fast, focused downs, and  the luring hand now became a hand signal for the down, which is something that he’ll need for obedience trials later. 

No two organisms learn in the same way

As an educator I’m aware that no two organisms learn in exactly the same way.  I was proof of that growing up, and I’m very aware of that as I teach adults and kids.  I have found that it is no different in the dog training world.  My puppies are the same age as they came out of a recent litter that I bred.  Both are clicker trained, but their personalities are so different and their learning styles are different from each other and different from my other dogs. 

People often ask me  which of the two puppies is smarter, and that’s a hard question to answer.  They are different, but that doesn’t make one dog smarter than the other.  Tuvok learned the down in one session with the lure.  That was the faster method for him.  Gretchen never responded to the lure.  Whenever I tried luring,  she would lock her legs in a stand while contorting her neck to pry that treat out of my hand.  She was the better candidate for shaping.

The merits of shaping and luring

Shaping and luring both have a place in the animal trainer’s toolkit. I still believe that shaping behaviors are the most effect way to teach.  Had I re-shaped the downs with Tuvok and continued to train him in a less interesting environment, he probably would have learned the behavior with that method.  Shaping puts the animal in control because they quickly learn that when they offer a behavior, they are rewarded for it, and they will most likely repeat that behavior.  The behavior then becomes a strong one that doesn’t go away very quickly.  That is, the dog is not apt to “forget” how to perform the behavior. 

In Tuvok’s case luring helped him to stay focused on the task at hand.  He didn’t have time to go off to explore his environment, because he had a clear idea of what it was that I wanted.  It took the guessing game out of the training sessions where I waited for the down, and he sat there wondering if the clicker was broken.  As I continue training dogs, both shaping and luring will have its place in my repertoire of training techniques.

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