Phasing Out Food Lures: How to Train Your Dog Without a Treat in Your Hand
One of the complaints I hear about positive dog training is that the dog has to see the food to do a certain behavior. It’s true in certain cases; some dogs refuse to do anything unless a treat, aka “food lure,” is involved.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can effectively train your dog without showing food in advance.
Why do some dogs need to see food to do a certain behavior? In every case I’ve seen, the dog was originally taught that specific behavior by using a food lure.
Don’t get me wrong—using a food lure can be a great way to teach an animal a new behavior. I teach my group dog training class students to use food lures for “sit” and “down,” though we also discuss how to capture these behaviors with clicker training.
Is My Dog Dependent on Food Lures?
Most people begin positive dog training well when using a food lure, like a small piece of Merrick Kitchen Bites’ grain-free biscuit, to guide the dog into the desired position.
Unfortunately, too many pet parents repeat that step without ever getting the food out of their hand, and their dog learns to see or smell the food before performing the behavior. This is “lure dependence.”
How to Avoid Lure Dependence
The two best ways to avoid lure dependence are:
- Use a clicker to encourage, or “capture,” certain behaviors. You can read more about capturing good behavior here.
- Teach the dog to perform the behavior even when you don’t have a treat in your hand—a process called “fading the lure.”
In positive dog training, when I capture or shape a behavior using a clicker, like Starmark’s clicker training aid, the pup learns to do the behavior without following food in the first place. It’s critical that those who use luring with food also know how to fade a lure properly.
Steps for Fading the Food Lure
Follow these guidelines to phase out the food lure:
- When you train your dog, use a clicker to mark the moment your dog performs the desired behavior and earns the treat you’re luring with. A good example of this is when you’re luring the dog to sit. When you call the command, put a small piece of a treat, like Fruitables crunchy dog treat, in your hand to guide the pup into the sit, and then click as soon as his rear touches the ground and let him have the treat lure.
- Lure two or three times in a row at most.
- Now do it without the treat lure BUT pretend you’re still holding the treat. Everything should look exactly the same as when you actually were holding food, except now your hand is empty. (Note: If you previously were luring with the treat visible to your dog, you first must work on holding the lure so he cannot see it in your hand before you attempt this step.)
- Click and grab a small piece of the treat to reward your dog for following your empty hand and sitting. Remember: You are fading the lure, not fading the food reward.
If your dog does not follow your empty hand, try luring one more time. Assuming the dog will follow the hand with the treat in it, click and give him the treat lure one more time. Then try again with no treat in your hand.
Some dogs follow an empty hand right away; others need the lure faded more slowly. No matter how your dog behaves, it’s important not to fall into the trap of luring every single time.
My Dog Won’t Perform Without Treats
If your dog has trouble doing the behavior for an empty hand, do up to two or three repetitions with the food lure and then one repetition with an empty hand. Repeat that pattern a few times.
Try to get into a rhythm as you train your dog so the repetitions happen one after the other and look exactly the same whether you have food in your hand or not. Most dogs will follow an empty hand after two or three repetitions with the lure if you maintain the same rhythm whether or not there is food in your hand.
If the dog does the behavior right during your empty-hand repetitions, click and feed him a treat hidden in a treat pouch, like Treat Mutt’s treat pouch. After your pup successfully follows a command with an empty hand, try another repetition with an empty hand.
If your dog still struggles, do one, two or, at most, three repetitions with a lure before returning to empty-hand repetitions. You can gradually increase empty-hand repetitions and reduce lure repetitions until you need no lure at all.
If your dog still has trouble, try making the pattern random as you fade the lure. For example, lure once, then use an empty hand twice, then lure once, then use an empty hand once, then lure twice, then use an empty hand three times, then lure once and so on. The key is to mix things up so your dog can’t predict whether or not there will be a lure in your hand.
Continue to click and reward your dog with a treat whenever he does the right behavior, whether you are feeding the dog the lure or grabbing a new treat after the dog followed your empty hand. Again, you are fading the lure, not the reward.
Strive to use an empty hand most of the time, but don’t fear returning to the lure once or twice in a row if your dog seems confused.
As long as you continue to do empty-hand repetitions regularly as you train your dog, he will grow more comfortable working on known behaviors without a lure.
Featured Image: via iStock.com/spyderskidoo