So, as I mentioned in the previous Stand Up! blog post, I learned a more effective way to teach Bindi how to go into the various positions I asked for, without correction, punishment, or physical pressure. This post will cover how to teach dogs new positions with a food lure. There are other ways to teach positions that are also positive and effective, but food lures are one of the easier options for most dogs.
First, I like to go through a step by step formula, or training plan, when teaching a new skill. Not all dogs, or handlers, are going to have the exact same results, so training plans are intended to be modified as needed, to fit the session.
Step #1: Catch the dog’s nose
I start off with a stinky treat that the dog finds appealing. I keep the treat in a closed fist and place it in front of the dog’s nose. Most likely, the dog’s nose will stick to my treat hand as the dog tries to access the stinky goodie. If you waft a treat in front of the dog’s nose and they seem uninterested, we need to reevaluate the setup: either the treats are not interesting enough for that dog, or the environment is too distracting for that dog at that moment. Finding a quiet, low distraction environment, and a high value treat will generally grab the dog’s attention.
Step #2: Lure the dog into position
Each position requires a different lure, since the motion of the treat effects the motion of the dog’s body. For a sit, I generally move the treat up and back over the dog’s head. This causes the dog to look up towards the treat and shift their weight onto their back end, causing their rear end to hit the ground. For a down, I generally move the treat in a downward motion towards the floor, following a path from the dog’s nose straight down to the ground. For a stand, I generally move the treat from the dog’s nose, straight forward, keeping the bridge of their nose parallel to the ground. This forward motion causes their weight to shift off of the back end the move the dog forward enough to get their weight balanced on all four feet.
If the dog is not offering the correct position, adjusting the placement of the lure will generally help clarify for the dog how they should shift their body. If the dog offers incorrect behavior, I often will just wait for the dog to figure out the correct option. Allowing the dog to troubleshoot and try new options, without the threat of being corrected, promotes creative thinking. This way the dog comes up with the correct answer on their own, rather than you needing to micro manage the dog’s behavior. Ideally, I want to only give minimal cues and allow the dog to process the information, rather than constantly barking orders at the dog while they are trying to learn.
I don’t use any physical pressure to guide the dog into position. Some dogs (like Bindi) find the pressure on their hips, or other body part, aversive during training. Additionally, if I use pressure to put the dog into position, then I did all the work for them and they did not actually learn how to offer the position on their own. Teach the dog how to make good choices rather than making them to obey through force.
Step #3: Mark the completed position
The moment the dog offers the position you were aiming for, mark it! I use a verbal “yes” to mark the correct behavior choices, but a clicker “click” is also a great option. Clickers are more effective due to their consistent sound and the handler’s ability to have better timing mechanically rather than verbally, but often trainers and handlers prefer the convenience of the verbal marker. To keep the verbal marker effective, make sure the sound of the “yes” is always the same. For example, “yes good dog” is not the same sound and a single “yes”.
So, why use a marker? The marker bridges the gap between the dog offering the desired behavior and being presented with a reward. Often, the moment you reach into your pocket to pull out a yummy treat, the dog has switched gears from the desired behavior into a begging behavior for the goodie. The “yes” lets the dog know that they made the correct choice and they will quickly be paid for it.
Step #4: Treat the dog while still in position
I encourage feeding the dog while the dog is still performing the desired behavior. For example, if the dog is lured into a sit, then the dog stands up to reach for the treat from the handler, the dog is learning that both the sit and the stand needed to occur to get the reinforcement. Instead, lure into the sit position then feed the dog while the dog is still seated. I recommend feeding dogs slightly lower than their nose to encourage polite treat taking, as well as, encourage them to maintain their current position.
Practice these steps until the dog is successful three times in a row. Keep in mind that training sessions should be short to maintain a high success rate. Try to only spend 5 minutes on one thing before moving on to something else or giving the dog a break. For young puppies, 2 minutes is all you need before giving them the opportunity to go romp or chew on something.
Now add Step #5: Pair a verbal cue with the food lure
Once the dog has gotten the hang of it, give the behavior a name. We tend to use formal obedience cues like “sit” “stay” “heel” etc., but the word choice is irrelevant since your dog doesn’t speak English. (What?!) You could pair the sit behavior with “strawberries” if you wanted to, the key is saying the word while the dog is doing the action, or immediately before the dog does the action. Don’t say the word after the dog has already performed the behavior (like “good sit” after the dog sat down). Typically, I catch the dog’s nose, then lure and give the verbal at the same time during the pairing process.
Practice this step for three successful repetitions before moving on.
Now add Step #6: Remove Steps #1 and #2 and replace with a gesture
Ok, now it’s time to switch things up. At this point, the dog is able to perform the position while you are guiding their nose with a stinky treat and saying the verbal cue associated with that position. Next, I want to remove the food from the cue. I keep my treats in a treat pouch while I am training, but you can also keep the treat in a hand behind your back. Instead of catching the dog’s nose with the food hand, I remove the food from that hand, but I pretend like I am still holding it. I don’t want the dog to know there is no longer food in that hand. I move the gesture hand the same way I did when that hand previously held food. I use the verbal cue and the marker word at the same time as I was previously. Once the behavior is marked, I grab the treat from the other hand and feed the dog. I want the dog to realize that they don’t need to see the food to get the food. The food becomes a reward instead of a lure.
As the dog gets better, I begin to adjust my gesture to whatever I want it to look like in its final state. For example, instead of a down gesture that goes from the dog’s face all the way to the floor, I may work on from the dog’s face to 2” above the floor. Then I would go from the dog’s face to 4” above the floor, and so on. Through baby steps and repetition, my final gesture might be a finger point to the ground instead of the large, dramatic gesture that I started with.
Step #7: Bonus point duration
Typically, when we cue a position, we want to the dog to maintain the position for a period of time. I don’t typically ask the dog to sit for one second then stand back up. This step teaches the dog how to continue to offer the position while building up their patience, impulse control, and ability to be still. To start, I want to have an idea of how long the dog can successfully sit still. For really fidgety dogs, the duration may be ½ seconds, for dogs that are less squirmy, the duration may be 15 seconds, it depends on the dog.
I cue the dog to go into a position, mark, then treat. THEN I give an extra treat, then pause for a short duration, then give an extra treat, then pause, then treat, then pause, then treat. I may do this for three treats worth or for 20 treats worth, but I like to mix it up, so the dog doesn’t predict the pattern. The moment I am done, I give a “release cue” like “all done” and toss a treat for the dog to chase. After the dog is released, there is no more opportunity for food until the position is cued again.
This teaches the dog that maintaining a position pays heavily and consistently but breaking the position is boring. If the dog releases themselves before that release and treat toss at the end, try shortening the duration. Usually the dogs get up when they get bored or frustrated, make it really easy for the dog to be successful by keeping the rate of reinforcement high while the dog is maintaining the position.
Step #8: Practice in new environments
Time to take this behavior on the road! I always recommend starting a behavior in a relatively low distraction environment, but quickly I want to practice in new locations. Dogs can struggle with generalizing behavior to different environments and contexts, so it is important to practice in as many places as possible. Always go at a pace that is comfortable for the dog. The difference between practicing a down at home and a down at the dog park is significant. Start at home, then practice in different rooms of the house, then practice in the backyard, then practice in the front yard, then practice in front of the neighbor’s house, then practice at the park away from distractions, then practice at the park near other people, then practice at the dog park. Gradually work up to the more challenging environments as your dog is ready for them.
Have fun practicing and remember to keep training pawsitive!
Any questions about how to teach a new position? Let me know!