Most dog trainers understand the importance of foundation training- the skills that any dog needs to learn before starting to compete in sports like obedience or agility and really just the life skills that a dog needs to be a part of society. What sometimes gets overlooked is just how important the trainer’s skills and technique are in making this foundation training successful. The famous animal trainer Bob Bailey often says, “Training is a mechanical skill”. This is important to remember since it can be tempting to blame things like methodology, environment, or even the dog himself (after all, you can’t train a hound, right?) for problems that can be solved by cleaning up the trainer’s technique at a very basic level. Over the next few posts, I’ll share some observations on places where dog training sometimes goes wrong, along with some tips on how to avoid making these errors.
The first common error associated with the use of reward based training is incorrect and over-use of a food lure. While a lure can be a quick and easy way to get a dog to perform a behavior, it is sometimes too easy. Often it can be tempting to take the lazy route and pull out a treat to get a behavior long after the early stages rather than taking the time to work through the fact that the dog is clearly telling you that he doesn’t understand what you have asked. Luring can be really reinforcing to us as humans, since it can make a dog look really smart without a lot of effort, but often the only learning that has really occurred is that the dog has learned to follow a treat- not to sit, lie down, or any of the other things you may think you have trained him to do.
Please don’t think that I am implying that you should train without rewards or that food is not the correct reward to use with most dogs. What I do think you should consider is whether the food makes the behavior happen (a lure, or bribe if you want to think in human terms) or whether the behavior makes the food happen (a reward, or paycheck for a job well done). The difference may seem subtle, but in terms of effective learning, it is huge.
In my next post, I’ll discuss some ways to handle errors (besides pulling out a cookie lure…..)