Lure-and-reward training is a simple and relatively quick way to teach your dog new behaviors. It works for positions like down or movements such as heeling beside you. But despite its usefulness initially, people often struggle to wean their dog off the lure and onto a hand signal or verbal cue alone. If you’ve ever felt like your dog will only listen when you have a treat in your hand, chances are you missed a crucial step in the process.
The lure-and-reward method uses a treat to lure your dog into different behaviors. Simply hold a delicious and motivating treat to your dog’s nose, then slowly move it around to get him to move the way you want. The treat acts like a magnet for your dog’s nose, and where his head goes, his body will follow. For example, if you want him to sit, move the treat up and slightly over his head. As he looks up at the treat, his rear will fall to the ground. If you want your dog to spin around, move the treat in a circle. After your dog completes the behavior, reward him so that he knows he did what you wanted.
You should only need to do a few repetitions with food in your hand for your dog to get the right idea. Once he’s reliably following the lure, it’s time to fade it, so that he doesn’t become reliant on seeing the treat to perform the behavior. Continue to repeat the hand motion, but without any food. Your dog should follow your empty hand the same way he followed the treat. Reward him with a treat after he does what you directed.
The motion of your empty hand will naturally become a hand signal for your dog. Repetition by repetition, you can gradually make your hand motion smaller and subtler, so rather than starting at your dog’s nose and moving with him, you can gesture at your side.
Once your dog has mastered the behavior, and it looks the way you want with the hand signal alone, you can add the verbal cue. Simply say the verbal cue, wait a moment, then give the hand signal. Be sure to reward your dog when he does what you’ve asked. In time, he will learn the word, and you can use it alone.
How to Fade the Lure
It’s important to fade the lure (move to an empty hand) as quickly as possible, so your dog doesn’t become reliant on seeing food. Some dogs will follow an empty hand with no problem, whereas others struggle to make the transition. They think they will only get a treat if they can see it from the start. Your dog needs to understand that the lure and the reward are two separate things. To help him understand this, fade the lure in three steps:
- Lure your dog with a treat, and then when he does as you’ve asked, give him the lure as his reward.
- Lure your dog with a treat but reward him with a treat from your other hand when he does what you’ve asked.
- Lure your dog with an empty hand, then reward him with a treat from the other hand when he does what you’ve asked.
If your dog is still struggling to make the switch from a food lure to an empty hand, try rubbing the fingers of your lure hand with a stinky treat to make them smell like something is there. Then be sure to deliver a treat from the other hand, as soon as your dog performs the behavior. Or, keep your treats hidden until it’s time to reward your dog, so he never knows where they are coming from.
You can also try using lures that aren’t food, like a toy or a ball. As long as your dog wants to work for it, the item will make a great lure. When you reward your dog, don’t always give him the toy. Surprise him with something else instead to help him distinguish between the lure and the reward and to prevent him from needing to see what he’s going to get before listening to you.
If you’re using a clicker or other marker when training your dog, you don’t need to fade it like you do the lure. Instead, you can stop using it outright when your dog no longer needs it. The clicker is a learning tool, so once your dog has mastered performing a behavior on a hand signal or verbal cue, you don’t need to mark the correct behavior anymore. If your dog’s response starts to get sloppy in the future, bring the marker back to help you refine his performance.