Why “Luring” With Treats Isn’t How You Want To Obedience Train Your Dog
The vast majority of modern-day trainers will teach obedience commands by “luring” the dog to do the desired behavior. Usually with edible treats, but the same can be done with a ball, squeaky, tug toy, bone, or other desirable item.
For instance, to get “Sit” you raise a treat above the dog’s head; that tilts his head up and back, and his butt naturally goes toward the ground. To get “Lie down” you lower a treat below a sitting dog’s nose, then draw it forward until his front paws walk forward and his chest touches the ground. To get “Come” you crinkle the treat bag and hold out the goodies. To get “Heel” you dangle a treat in front of the dog’s nose right by your hip as you walk. To get “Leave it” you flash a treat in his field of view to distract him away from the chicken bone or other offending item. Etc.
Luring has its time and place. For instance if you’re trying to motivate your dog through an agility course. Or teach him a trick, like “give paw” or “roll over”. Luring encourages the dog to do the action fast and excitedly, focused on getting that reward!
Problem is, most people who hire trainers AREN’T trying to teach their dog to do tricks, or motivate them through an obstacle course. Quite the contrary: what most people are looking for, when they look for “obedience training”, is to get their dog to be calm, peaceful, patient, trusting, respectful, friendly, and obedient. They don’t care so much if their dog goes to his “place” when they leave for work; all they care about is that he doesn’t whine and bark his head off and scratch at the door and chew up their apartment. They don’t care if he’s strictly “heeling” on leashed walks, as long as he passes other dogs and skateboards without barking and lunging. And so on. In other words, what owners are looking for is a STATE OF MIND, not a particular bodily movement.
The state of mind luring teaches, furthermore, isn’t the state of mind owners want. Luring trains dogs to try to get the reward. Anytime the dog doesn’t have that goal in mind — e.g. if he gets bored of the treat, or decides scaring off the oncoming jogger is more important than taking a snack break, or feels the rumbling train is too scary to risk coming back to you for a treat — he won’t behave. And 99% of the time, it’s precisely for these stressful “trigger” situations that owners are working on obedience training in the first place! Who cares if the dog comes to them in their apartment? What matters is if he comes outside, offleash, after the train spooks him into running away. Who cares if he looks at you — or “touches”, or sits — when you’re relaxing in your living room? What matters if he’ll listen to you when you don’t want him eating the passing jogger. Etc.
The alternative I coach is crucially different. You say the command you want followed, then instead of luring the dog in hopes they’ll do it, you “make it happen”. You want “Sit”? Touch the dog’s butt with your fingertips. You want “Lie down”? Press the muscles running on either side of his backbone, just below the shoulderblades. You want loose leash heeling? Correct your dog before his nose crosses in front of your knees, with sharp audio, visual block, or physical snap of the leash. And so on.
Fairly quickly, of course, this dominant physical coercion of the desired behavior can be lessened, and eventually eliminated entirely. (Just like with treat-luring.) In the meantime, however, vast benefits will have been reaped.
First of all, these methods will work even in stressful “trigger” situations — the very situations most owners care most about. Properly executed audio/visual/physical corrections will keep your dog in non-reactive, non-aggressive, peaceful “follower” mode on leash even when you’re passing his big unneutered arch-enemy. Physical touch will create a calm “Down” even around scary buses and in high-stress elevator situations. And so on.
Second, the more proactive approach creats a calm submissive mindset that prevents problem behaviors before they start. It can look similar to luring on paper: you say a command, you get the behavior to happen, and you reward the dog. But in fact the process is night-and-day different, psychologically. Here, the dog does what you say whether or not he “wants to”; you make it happen. He does it because he’s submissive to you. Then — and here’s the magic — he gets rewarded totally unexpectedly! So he gets rewarded for being submissive.
Whereas luring only trains a dog to do something if he wants the reward, what you’re encouraging by my method is submissiveness, being a happy follower. You’re training your dog to become happy doing things he wouldn’t otherwise want to do. Which is really what most of the time we’re looking for, in trouble spots with our pet dogs.
Luring is a largely useless leftover from a time when dog training was mainly about bird dogs, hunting dogs, and teaching dogs to do tricks. Now with the proliferation of pet “companion” dogs in busy urban and suburban environments, what owners really want, more than any particular behaviors, is a calm peaceful submissive mindset. Luring doesn’t help with this.
It’s time to leave luring behind, and start giving owners what they really want.