Positive Reinforcement Training: Lures, Rewards, and Bribes

In this post:

  1. Positive Reinforcement: Stop Bribing – Start Rewarding
  2. What is a lure?
  3. What is the difference between luring, bribing, and rewarding?
  4. How to avoid bribing your dog
  5. Is it too late to change your treat addict?

 

We all work for rewards. You work hard at your job so you continue to get a paycheck, you keep a clean house so your friends and family will come to visit, and you work out so you can continue to enjoy delicious food…or is that one just me? And just like with humans, starting a new routine can be difficult for your dog. You need something special to increase your dog’s incentive to listen to you when first starting out. This is where lure (or treat) training is the most beneficial.

Positive Reinforcement: Stop Bribing – Start Rewarding

MYTH: Positive reinforcement is just bribing your dog. The biggest criticism that I hear about using positive reinforcement is that using treats during training teaches the dog to only respond when there are treats. I think that this argument can be used for any training method. If your dog is only responding when presented with a treat (or wears an electric collar), that means that you have done something wrong.

Think of it this way: when you first learned to ride a bicycle, you probably started off with training wheels. Over time you learned to ride on your own without the training wheels. Odds are, as an adult, you no longer need them.

Same with training. The goal of training is to remove the training tool. You don’t wake up and randomly put on training wheels back on your bike because you are worried that today you will forget how to ride a bike!

POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT 101

What is a lure?

In positive reinforcement training, you begin with a lure. The lure is what guides the dog into a position or gets the dog’s attention. It is the very first step in training. A lure can be anything that your dog will follow. I usually use the dog’s food in environments with low-level distractions or treats (my favorite are ZIWI Premium Dog Food or Zukes Natural Training Treats) when the dog is extra distracted or stressed.

Luring is efficient and effective because most dogs are food motivated and will do just about anything for a quick and delicious snack. They quickly pick up the concept of following food. When teaching a new behavior your dog may struggle to pay attention, a lure can help keep their attention focused on you and the task at hand.

From Ian Dunbar’s DogStarDaily “As the quickest, and one of the simplest of all training techniques, lure/reward training is the technique of choice for most owners to teach their dog basic manners. For behavior modification and temperament training, food lure/reward training should be mandatory.

How to lure:

Make sure the treat is small. It needs to be something the dog is interested in. Put it on your pointer and middle finger and cover it with your thumb. This way the dog can smell it and follow it but can’t get it.

Your dog should not be able to take the lure away from you unless you allow it. Food treats can then be replaced with other forms of rewards such as attention, once the dog knows the correct behavior.

What is the difference between luring, bribing, and rewarding?

Lure:

A lure is presented BEFORE a behavior, specifically to entice the trainee to perform the required response voluntarily and on cue. It should only be used when first teaching your dog commands. You do have options to not use a lure – you can simply wait until the dog performs on his or her own and then reward (this is called shaping a behavior). Luring is simply faster and it is easier to motivate a dog with a treat.

Reward:

A reward is presented AFTER the desired behavior (or just being awesome). Rewarding a dog teaches the dog the relevance of the exercise, so the dog learns why it should do what was requested.  But unlike with electric dog collars where the dog learns to avoid pain, your dog is excited to perform the behavior! A reward can be anything that your dog loves: food, treats, toys, praise, cuddles, going off-leash.

Bribe:

A bribe is presented BEFORE the desired behavior. Unlike with luring, which is used as a training tool to teach the meaning of the request, a bribe is offered to a dog who knows how to do something but is not wanting to do it. It can present a huge problem for the dog and their training.

Stop Bribing!!

Where the problem occurs is when the lure becomes the reward and then a bribe. This is why it is so important to phase out the lure as soon as you are able to. Or use something else to reward your dog with. I strongly suggest reading more about the difference between luring, rewarding, and bribing.

How to avoid bribing your dog

The most important part about lure training is that you MUST phase out the lure and you MUST NOT let the lure become the reward. Here is what you should do to avoid your lure and rewards becoming bribes.

Phase Out the Lure:
Your first step to avoiding bribing your dog is to phase out the lure. After about 3 to 6 (or more depending on your dog) repetitions using the lure to guide your dog into a position, start using your empty hand as the lure and add a verbal command. You might need to bring back the lure occasionally but try to avoid it as much as possible. Make sure to keep rewarding your dog with the treat when they complete the desired command.

Phase Out the Food:
Once your dog is performing the command pretty consistently – put the food out of the dog’s site. This is usually the goal for your second day of training. You want to make sure that the dog is aware that you do not have a treat in your hand when you are asking them to perform the desired command.

Start using real-life rewards. Dogs find many things rewarding! During a game of fetch ask your dog to sit, down, or stay before throwing the ball. Before walking out the door ask your dog to sit and stay. When people come over, ask your dog to go lie down in their dog bed before saying hi to people. Give your dog pets, verbal praise, and love when they do something correctly instead of treats or food.

Choose What to Reward and How:
Once your dog masters the command start deciding what you will reward. Give treats randomly and choose a reward based on how well your dog performs.

If I had to ask Truffle multiple times to do something, he usually just gets head pats and a “Good Boy”. However, if he does it on the first try, I throw him a party with lots of kisses and even treats! You also have to consider the dog’s environment. If he comes when called the first time at the house, he gets some love and maybe a treat. But if he comes to me after I called him multiple times but we are at the dog park and he is chasing a squirrel, he gets a party! Simply because what I am asking of him is a lot harder in this situation!

When your dog does something badly, our instinct is to not reward them for it at all. Your dog should not worry about you withholding anything when they do not perform how you want them to. Instead, lower the level of the reward.

PHASE OUT TREATS

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This does not mean that you cannot give your dog treats as a reward. I still use treats when we are in a new situation or environment, when we are learning something new, or when we are in a stressful situation. My dogs get a lot of treats on a daily basis! I sometimes just give them for no reason (for being extra cute).

Is it too late to change your treat addict?

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No, it is not. Go back to the beginning by using the basic steps for each command with treats and after a few remove the lure. But make sure you still reward them. Use life rewards, like going on walks,  petting them, allowing them to jump on the sofa, or getting dinner instead of treats. You also need to stop rewarding sub-par behavior once your dog is more advanced in his training. If you are having any issues getting your dog to stop expecting treats, work with a positive reinforcement trainer.

Photo Credit: Seattle Flashing Lights Photography

Final Thoughts:

While lure training is an incredibly effective way to begin the training process, it should not be a long term tool that you use. Aim to phase it out fairly quickly as your dog becomes accustomed to your training sessions. If you’ve tried to make your sessions fun for your dog, then he or she should look forward to training without a lure incentive. In this way, you can successfully build a companionship founded on trust, joy, and love for you and your four-legged best friend.

Aly DelaCoeur, UW-AAB
Aly DelaCoeur, UW-AAB is one of the founders of Wag Enabled (originally Why Does My Dog). Aly has a certificate in applied animal behavior through the University of Washington and is a certified veterinary assistant and AKC Evaluator. She aims to provide an unbiased perspective on dog training by providing practical, intelligent, and caring advice for people to impart on their canine companions