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Food Lures and Training

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Luring is legal

Let me start by saying that if you decide to use a food lure you are NOT committing a “training felony” and the “'lure police” will not be knocking on your door. I would choose lure-and-reward training over any training involving aversives. That said—is luring the most efficient training? I'll make my case that it is not. Luring = loss of control

Without language as a communications tool, as a trainer I want to control as much as I possibly can in the environment. That way I'm aware of, and have the ability to adjust precisely, what inputs an animal is receiving. I want to be in control of distractions, including my movements, vocalizations, criteria-setting, timing, and rate of reinforcement. The more control I have of these critical fundamentals, the more efficient I can be as a trainer. I can keep the animal on an optimal learning curve (not too steep, but not too shallow either) for that particular animal. If I use a food lure, I lose the ability to control these fundamentals. For example:

  1. With my reinforcer in sight from the beginning, I've lost the dog's focus. The dog is focusing on the food instead of on me. (The trainer’s focus tends toward the food as well, limiting observation of the dog’s behavior). I may have also reduced the saliency of the reinforcer since it is in sight for the whole performance of the behavior (i.e., there is no surprise factor).
  2. There is movement in the environment—a hand moving with the food—so I've lost the ability to control what the dog might associate as a cue for the behavior.
  3. If a dog is lured through the behavior from beginning to end, I've lost the ability to set criteria precisely. If I end up with less than the precision I desired, how do I go back and address any part of the behavior for improvement?
  4. Control of the timing of the reinforcer is also out the window, because the reinforcer is present during the entire behavior. When the dog finally gets the food, what has the treat actually reinforced? Only the dog knows! Of course, any control of the rate of reinforcement is lost since control of criteria-setting is non-existent.

In sum, my communication with the animal becomes less clear and less consistent; thus, my training is less efficient.

The lure as a crutch

If you do decide to use a food lure, it is critical that you remove it from the training picture very quickly.

There are additional problems that can arise from using food lures.

Since food is by definition a primary reinforcer, it can very quickly become the cue for the behavior—in as few as three trials. The dog adopts the attitude of “Show me the food and THEN I'll do it.” If you do decide to use a food lure, it is critical that you remove it from the training picture very quickly. We do not teach students how to lure behaviors in the KPA Dog Trainer Professional course, and we don't recommend teaching luring to beginners who come to pet manners classes. To teach luring to beginners gives them that oh-so-tempting crutch to fall back on: if the dog doesn't do as asked, lure the behavior, and, voilà, he does it. Beginners do not understand nor do they appreciate the cost of luring each time the dog is stuck or the training has bogged down.

It is considered an advanced skill to be able to lure a behavior quickly and then turn around and let the dog drive the training process. Even clicker trainers will, on occasion, use a food lure, but they are cognizant of the need to fade it quickly. The only times I use a food lure are in the following situations:

With a very old dog that's brand-new to training to try and jump-start a simple behavior

  1. With a dog that has a history of aversive training and appears to be shut down
  2. If I suspect a possible health issue that's causing the dog to avoid doing the behavior. For instance, a dog might have joint issues and the behavior I am trying to elicit is uncomfortable. In that situation, I might see if I can lure the dog through the behavior—closely observing the dog's movement to see if it actually can do the behavior or the movement I've been trying to capture or shape.
  3. In those rare (very rare!) instances when I need to get a behavior quickly (maybe for a demonstration to the pet's parents during a behavior consult)

That's about it.

Luring devalues the treat

There is one more pitfall, an insidious one, which everyone should be aware of. You can actually develop a negative CER (Conditioned Emotional Response) to a dog's favorite treat if you use a top treat as a lure to initiate a behavior that is uncomfortable for the dog (like sitting when it has joint issues), scary, or otherwise undesirable (like going into its crate). This goes back to the principle of classical conditioning: When two stimuli are paired in time (less than two seconds of each other), the emotion elicited by the SECOND stimulus migrates BACK to the FIRST stimulus. Let's say a dog HATES its crate. Many (nearly all?) unknowing pet parents try to lure their dogs into the crate using something the dog loves. How about a MEATBALL? The dog is shown the meatball and led into its crate. The first stimulus is the meatball and the second stimulus is being in the crate. It might work once, twice, or maybe even three times. But, if being in the crate is s sufficiently aversive for that dog, and the pairing is appropriately timed (it almost always is in this scenario), there is a high potential for the dog to begin to HATE meatballs. Now you have to use a T-bone steak to get the dog into the crate! Almost everyone has experienced this result without understanding what's going on.

Limit the lure

My recommendation is to use lures sparingly, if at all.

My recommendation is to use lures sparingly, if at all. When you employ a lure, have a definitive reason for doing so, and get it out of the training plan quickly. Be aware of the drawbacks and undesired consequences of a lure, as well. Brainstorm a more straightforward training strategy with the help of a KPA trainer!

About the author
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Steve Benjamin, KPA CTP, is a KPA faculty member and the owner of Clicking With Canines in Endicott, NY. Steve specializes in teaching clicker training to his clients, helping them teach their dogs to be socially acceptable, happy, and intelligent family pets.