To Lure or Not To Lure

Luring in animal training refers to the use of food lure as a way of getting the animal to do the desired action. For instance, when we want a dog to sit, we hold the treat in front of its nose and slowly move it upwards so that when dog tries to get it, its behind will automatically (well that’s the theory at least) move towards the ground and the dog will sit. Similarly we can use the food lure to get the animal to follow us or to move to a specific position. Most of the “tricks” that we want to teach to our dogs can be taught by using lures.

Traditionally luring has been the way to train. The idea was to lure the dog to do want you wanted while at the same time repeating the cue word of your choosing. Recently, however, a lot of trainers have abandoned this way of training since it has some inherent problems.

The first issue with luring is that the lure will eventually need to be faded off, unless if you think it is OK that you always need to have a treat in your hand when you want your dog to sit. Fading should be done quite early in the training so that it won’t become part of the cue. Depending on the trainer (and of course on the dog) you should ideally have no more than five attempts with a lure, after which you should really start fading it. In the worst case, the dog has already decided that the lure is part of the cue and instead of fading it, you will end up having to teach the whole thing from the start.

Especially if your dog is extremely greedy the problem with using the lure is that the dog might be so focused on the lure that it is not paying much attention to what it is actually doing. When you then try to fade to lure off the dog has no clue what it is supposed to be doing. It will stare at your hand or your pocket expecting to see the treat, that it will get if it follows it.

The dog might try do various different things when you are teaching it to sit. It might reverse or try to jump to get the lure. When the cue word “sit” is constantly repeated it might, in the pooches head, get associated with any one of these actions it performs, or with all of them. Hence, a lot of trainers nowadays suggest that the cue word is only added once the dog performs the desired thing pretty well. Hence, you would only start using the cue “sit” once you can be pretty sure your dog is about to sit.

The topic of luring can sometimes create a little arguments in the dog training circles since there are trainers who insist that you should never use it, but train your dog with free shaping only. Free shaping is a bit like the game where one person of the group goes outside the room, while others hide something in the room. When the person enters, they try to guide the searcher to the hidden thing by using warm and cold as indicators of approaching or going further from the target. The trainer simply splits the desired task into small fragments, called criteria. The dog is then guided through these criteria one at the time until the final task is accomplished. For instance the criteria for touching a hand with the nose might be 1) looks at the hand 2) turns head towards the hand 3) moves the nose towards the hand 4) touches the hand. Each of these stages is taken as a task in itself and the animal is rewarded when it performs the desired criteria. If you’re interested in knowing more about free shaping, Pat Miller has written a very nice article about it in The Whole Dog Journal.  There is also a very good introductory article by Karen Pryor in the site. Enjoy!


Bob Bailey, who is the grand ol’ man of animal training based on operant conditioning has revealed that when they were training their hundreds of animals from dolphins to cats and birds, they mostly used training. Susan Garrett, an American instruction and many times agility champion, is known to not even allow luring in her classes. She discusses the reasons for this in her blog and has also included a text written by Bailey, that talks about the reasons they had for using luring. You can check those out here.

So, I cannot actually answer the question in the title. I guess, like most of the times when working with animals, the answer depends on the animal, the task at hand, the time you have, the condition and so on. In other words, each case is unique and a good trainer will choose the to use what works best in each individual case.

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