By Yvette Van Veen
Luring a dog towards something he fears is a problematic practice most recognize. Regardless of whether you use aversives in training or not, it’s an issue because it can create a slew of problems.
From the dog’s perspective, luring into scary is a ‘gotcha.’ The first few times, they happily follow the food only to face something nasty. Animals aren’t stupid. Fool them once…they learn. After a couple repetitions, they realize that food can lead to nasty things. Food motivation may decline. Food snubbing may start to happen. They learned that food can predict nasty things. Food becomes tainted with the gotcha lure. Food becomes a trap.
Lures may have seemed to initially work. There are plenty of videos where dogs seem to get closer to scary things in a session. Few of those videos show the dog’s abilities months later. That’s where the problem lies. With repetition the dog works out the gotcha – the trap.
Dogs go closer to the scary thing – closer than if the lure had not been present. It creates a false choice point. The dog is choosing to approach the lure, not the scary thing. While that is a choice (all training involves dogs making choices), it’s not telling you if the dog actually likes coming close to the trigger. The dog’s choice point isn’t an accurate read.
Tainted food bleeds into skills training. You wind up with a dog that hesitates when you try to lure downs, sits, leg weaves, EVERYTHING. Trust is completely broken and food lures are less effective. You wind up with slow, hesitant, responses. Luring into scary causes nasty behavioural tentacles that spread to so many other places.
Morals are irrelevant on this topic. Luring a dog into scary is a hot mess strategy.
Food isn’t the only thing that has the capacity to lure a dog. Toys can act as lures. It should be pretty obvious that luring with a toy is still luring. We wouldn’t lure a dog with a toy into a scary situation either. Nothing new there.
What about a target stick?
Let’s assume that I teach a dog to touch the stick. I can then use this target as a lure. In fact, this is exactly how I taught my dog Kip to back up through my legs. My arms were too short to use food. I used a target stick as my lure.
Target sticks can act like lures.
So can nose targets, chin targets, hands pointing to things. A lure is not FOOD. It is anything that tempts the animal to follow.
Bowls are lures. Walk into a training class with a bowl and dogs pull towards the bowl. Bowls represent supper to most dogs.
My coffee cup creates the same reaction in class. My cup is kind of bowl shaped. Bowl shaped enough to lure the dog. Bowls, cups, buckets. Doesn’t matter. Active training is not required to create a lure. It can happen passively during daily life.
If we get real, ANYTHING can act like a lure. Dogs that have developed a positive association towards nail clippers will follow them, touch them, bite them. I can tell if clients have done their nail conditioning homework easily. I hold out the clippers and watch the dog. Dogs that are happy to see them are lured right to me. My old clippers bear the teethmarks of many dogs nibbling at their “lure.” (Dogs will touch and bite at objects that have a positive association created by food.)
For all intents and purposes, luring a dog with a piece of food is no different than luring with any object or target. Swapping from food to any other type of lure doesn’t change anything. Luring into scary situations is bad form whether you use food, toys, bowls, target sticks, ANYTHING.
Luring is luring.
This doesn’t mean it’s bad to teach a dog to station or target for husbandry. What it does mean is that we cannot swap to a target and claim that we are no longer luring. We most certainly are.
What is at issue is whether we are luring into something nasty – a gotcha. Or whether we are luring the dog towards something they like. Teaching a dog to target and hold still so that you can do something nasty is still 100% nasty for the dog.
How would you know if someone is targeting towards fearful things or targeting towards pleasant ones?
There’s a standard experimental design that we can apply to our training in order to check. In many experiments, animals are taught to do a skill – usually lever pressing. Researchers then present a stimulus and see how the animal responds. If animals stop working, stop doing a task they enjoy, the stimulus is aversive.
Now, it’s important to recognize that many animals will turn to look at something approaching. A momentary orientation and return to work is not the same as an animal that stops responding. When it comes to our dogs, when they stop working, stop targeting, beyond that orientation, we are on shaky ground.
Let’s say I have taught my dog to stand still – to target their nose to an object. As I approach with clippers, they look up. Then they quickly get back to work and stay on task. It tells us that the dog has noticed and is not upset by the clippers. They are buying INTO staying on task. They want to stay.
If the dog stops working and goes off task, the dog is worried and thus too worried to perform an otherwise enjoyable task. It’s, “I can’t do my fun target, there are scary things I need to attend to.” Opting out of a fun task should set off warning bells.
We all, at some point, may accidentally step across this line. When we see it, it should scream to us that the dog is worried or scared. Full stop, address that fear with classical conditioning. Don’t repeat what is clearly uncomfortable to the animal. For example, in this nail video, my Kip has learned to lie on his side. However, I also address fear of nail tools by breaking things down into small steps so he develops a positive association towards them.
To repeat that step without addressing the fear is to ignore everything that the animal is saying. It’s saying that you heard the animal and dismissed it and repeated that which you know they do not like.
Seeing a dog choosing to leave a target once is informational. Twice off task should prompt us to truly see that something is wrong. We need to change. Putting the dog into a position where they are freezing multiple times, turning their nose up at fun tasks is on the trainer. We’re luring into scary with a target.
If you object to luring a dog into scary with a piece of food, you should be equally opposed to luring a dog in with a target. Functionally these things are identical. If you find your dog is turning their nose up at a task, then see this as comparable to a dog turning their nose up to food.
It matters not how you lure a dog into scary – a lure is a lure is a lure. A lure is simply something that draws the dog in. It is our choice on whether we create safe happy scenarios to lure them towards, or whether we lure them towards scenarios where they would prefer to choose to leave.
Note: There are times when an animal requires immediate medical care. That medical care overrides training choices. This point is often used as justification for targeting a dog into fearful situations. I am of course talking about dogs that are being trained for various husbandry skills and not in the throes of a medical treatment where training cannot be done.
About the Author
Yvette Van Veen PCT-A is dog behavior consultant and owner of Awesome Dogs, in Dorchester, Ontario, Canada. She is also a long-time columnist and multiple Dog Writers Association of America award nominee, and currently writes a regular column for The Toronto Star. She has worked with rescue dogs for more than 14 years, focusing mainly on rural, roaming and feral rescue dogs from communities throughout Ontario and Quebec, Canada. She is also the creator of Awesome Dogs Shareables, an educational meme site providing resources and training tips in small, shareable formats.