So many ways to teach behaviours and so little time! I’ve covered all of these in various blog posts in some way, and if I’m honest, I find a mixture of all of them to be beneficial. The behaviour you’re trying to teach is, for me, going to dictate how you teach it. For example I may start off with a lure, then progress into shaping too, all the while using some capturing alongside! But does it matter which of these techniques we use? Is it not dependent purely on the behaviour we are teaching?
Luring is by and large one of the most popular ways to train. It’s kind, effective, easy for novice owners, and builds confidence for owners who are unsure of how or what to do. Luring has it’s downsides however, I have said before if we do not phase that lure out pretty smartish, we end up bribing and find we have a puppy who will only perform certain behaviours when there is a lure in front of his nose! Do we really want our dogs to only walk beside us when we have food? No. We hear it a lot, “my puppy will only do it if I have a treat”. What has happened? Our pup sees no point, no need, indeed there is no reinforcement in his eyes, for performing a behaviour without a treat on his nose. Furthermore, your pup has been so conditioned to performing behaviours with a treat on his nose, he may not even understand HOW to perform a behaviour without that lure. It’s not his fault, he has been taught that he only needs to perform a behaviour when there is a treat clued to his little tiny nose! Also, it has been said using lures encourages a pup to work/focus more on the food rather than the actual behaviour being performed, possibly taking them slightly longer to establish a behaviour.
Shaping is a great way to train, this involves marking and rewarding tiny little increments of a behaviour until you get to the finished result. For example, if I’m teaching my dog to hold a toy, I will mark and reward her for merely looking at the toy, then mark and reward for sniffing it, then for mouthing it, then for picking it up, then for holding for 1 second etc etc until you have a fairly established ‘hold’ cue. You can lure to encourage the pup, mark and reward, then phase that lure out and merely shape the rest. If you are teaching something particularly complex, indeed this would be much easier. You can prompt, moving your hand via targeting to a certain area to encourage your pup that way without a lure, so you at least have something to mark and reward. However, if you are purely free shaping, so no lure or prompt, merely waiting for any slight movement toward the desired behaviour, and you have a specific behaviour in mind which is quite difficult, you could be waiting a pretty long time for something to reinforce and run the risk of the pup losing interest or giving up based on the lack of reinforcement. So, luring or prompting will increase the likelihood of you having something, any tiny little behaviour towards the end desired behaviour, to reinforce. This will build confidence in the pup, he is getting things RIGHT, we are making it easier using lures and prompts for him to choose the right path leading to success. If we are indeed shaping without a lure or prompt, so ‘free shaping’, the pups focus is purely on the behaviour being performed, not so much on the treat/reward at the end. Free shaping is great fun for getting your pup to experiment with new behaviours, we mark and reward any behaviour he performs with him offering lots of different things to gain reinforcement. Your pup learns he can affect the environment by performing behaviours to gain rewards! All of this builds confidence. So your pup offers behaviours, we mark and reward them, and we turn it into a fun new trick or behaviour on cue! The possibilities are endless!
Capturing is also a really good way of reinforcing desired behaviours. We wait for a behaviour to occur naturally and mark and reward when it does. For example, if we are training a sit, we wait until our pup naturally sits down of his own accord, we mark and reward. The more this happens, the more likely our pup is to offer sits in the future. We then attach a cue word to it, ‘sit’, and voila! We have a sit cue! However, if you are aiming to teach a pretty complex and somewhat challenging behaviour, you may never get the opportunity to capture anything at all. If I am teaching my pup to weave through my legs in an 8, and he has never actually walked through my legs of his own accord, I’m probably going to need some kind of lure or prompt. So, capturing relies pretty heavily on the behaviour being fairly natural and fairly frequently offered. Perfectly do-able with simple behaviours, not so easy with complex ones.
Targeting is a fun way to train! We teach our pups to target something, usually our hand with their nose to start off with, then progress to a target stick and from there we can encourage them into all sorts of places or positions by following the target. This is fun, effective and minimises the possibility of our pup only performing behaviours when there is food in front of his nose. However, a target is effectively a prompt, and as with a lure it will largely need to be phased out. Again, as with the lure, we don’t want our pups to only perform a behaviour with the presence of a prompt, we need to ensure that target is phased out just as quickly. So, using the earlier example of training our pup to weave an 8 through our legs, if my pup will ONLY perform this behaviour with a target in front of him guiding him, it’s not going to be a very established behaviour! However, if I can start training it by using a target, then phase out that target and keep shaping and capturing (they do like to offer behaviours when they know it might be reinforced, cheeky!), the behaviour will be performed on cue without a target and possibly with a small hand signal. Target training doesn’t involve our pups following lures, so the focus isn’t so much based on the reinforcement at the end but the actual process of the behaviour being learned. This may possibly increase the speed at which a behaviour is learned. Although our pup is still working towards the reinforcement (the treat at the end), the focus is far more on the actual task in hand rather than the bit of sausage on his nose! The food doesn’t encourage a pup to work, the target does, and that can’t be a bad thing can it? Targeting can be helpful in, for example, habituating a pup to a harness. We can encourage our pup to offer his head through the harness with a ‘touch’. Often, we ‘put’ something like a harness over a pups head, he cowers his head down and looks a bit put out, and we’ve already started to build up a negative association with a harness, albeit a small and gradual association. By targeting, and encouraging our pup to OFFER the behaviour of putting his head through, we’re giving him a choice, and setting him up to make the right one.
As I previously stated, when training your own pup I think you will find you chop and change and mix things up hugely. Unless you are a seasoned professional in target training or a free shaping genius, I don’t believe you will stick to purely one method of training. I, personally, find that whatever I am doing dictates what method I use. If I am teaching something particularly complex, I’m definitely going to be using lures or prompts, at least to begin with. If I’m teaching something that’s offered pretty often and naturally occurring, then I’ll capture it. Don’t get too bogged down with the whys and wherefores, it’s just good to bear in mind the pros and cons of all training techniques and how we can use them to our advantage.
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