Last week I spent five days at Natural Encounters in their Professional Training Workshop hosted and run by Steve Martin and Dr. Susan Friedman. I watched crows and parrots learning new behaviors so fast that my head spun. The trainers there are so good they could train a flock of parrots to build a shopping mall in two weeks. (I’m talking about you, Steve Martin and Wouter Stellaard.) As part of their training, they frequently use lures and what they call “prompts, and quickly end up with animals that reliably perform to the smallest of cues, every time.
I found that encouraging, because I too have found lures to be invaluable training aids (IF used correctly and in the right context–more on that later) . Yet, I have heard some argue that one should NEVER use a lure. Recently I heard a trainer say that, to her, luring was anathema to good training. “Dogs learn much better if you let them figure out the behavior for themselves.“ And yet, many of us do get a behavior started using a lure or prompt. Since this seems to be a somewhat controversial topic, I thought it might be interesting to begin a discussion about it.
First, we need to define what we’re talking about. I’m going to use the training I got to do at NEI as an example (because I have lots of photos of it and I selfishly love seeing pictures of George, the parrot I was honored to work with last week at NEI). My goal was to teach George to hang from a hula hoop by his beak, feet well off the perch and up in the air.
Shaping is the reinforcement of successive approximations of a desired behavior. Thus, my training with George consisted of marking and reinforcing first walking closer and closer to the hoop, then raising up his head, then touching the hoop with his beak, then holding onto the hoop for a micro second, etc.
Luring is showing the animal something it wants, usually food, and using it to encourage the animal to move in the desired way. On the first few trials, I let George see that my right hand held food, and used it to encourage him to move toward the hoop.
Prompting is similar to luring, except the animal can’t see the food. For example, I held my hand (the one that always delivered food) above the hoop to encourage George’s head to move upward toward the hoop. I marked each approximation with “Good,” and then fed from the hand that did the prompting. On occasion, (I think when I was losing faith), I’d hold the food so that it was visible, but my coach Wouter encouraged me to hide the food and use prompts rather than a lure. In his experience, it is more effective to move one’s body in a way to encourage the desired action, rather than let the food itself be the focus. That way, he argued, the animal pays more attention to what he is doing in relation to the environment. A compelling point, I think.
Free shaping, on the other hand, waits for the learner to initiate a behavior him or herself. For example, I could have stood still and waited for George to just look toward the hoop. I’d reinforce that, and continue reinforcing each step closer to the desired behavior, without ever giving him any clues to what I wanted. I have no doubt that this method would have been successful. However, it would have taken much longer to achieve the goal.
Some argue that free shaping is a more effective way of training, because the animal figures it all out for himself, from the very beginning. However, in her lectures (brilliant!) Dr. Susan Friedman, reminded us that she hasn’t seen any evidence to support this claim.
Some even suggest that one isn’t using shaping at all unless one uses exclusively free shaping. For example, Karen Pryor, who has done fantastic work encouraging the training world to use positive reinforcement, has argued that it’s not shaping if you are using a lure or prompt.
Let me delve into this by continuing to talk about training George, because there’s really nothing different about it than teaching a dog a trick. I’m going to combine lures and prompts here into one category, and call them L/P’s just to keep us from getting bogged down.
I first used a L/P to create a success for George—if you move toward the hoop, even just by leaning forward, you get R+ (positive reinforcement, in this case in the form of food). Once it was clear he began moving forward without seeing the food, even just a bit, I closed my fist and used my hand as a prompt. But as quickly as I could (and still be successful), I dropped out the prompt completely and let him do it on his own. I added prompts back in when it was time for him to raise his head and move his beak toward the hoop, but again, only enough to get the behavior started.
It took 3 short sessions to teach George to hang from the hoop (thanks to my mighty team mates, Meg, Blake and Jane, who held up the hoop, and Wouter’s coaching)
“He’s looking for information,” Wouter would say, if I had waited too long for George to move to the next step. “Go ahead and help him out.” And I think that’s an important point here, at least from my perspective. If George didn’t get enough reinforcement, he simply would have given up and gone off to do something else. All the birds at NEI have 100% choice about whether they want to engage in training or not. If an animal is engaged in a training exercise, and truly wants to figure out the goal (or, better stated: continue getting more treats), the trainers at NEI always provide them the information they are looking for.
Free Shaping is great, really great, if you want to let your dog offer a behavior on her own and then turn it into something fun. A perfect example is to present your dog with a cardboard box, and start marking (with a clicker or a word like “Good”) anything that looks interesting. Free shaping has has some important benefits: It’s great for dogs who have little confidence, and are hesitant or shut down, because they can’t lose. Anything they do leads to something they want. They start learning that their own behavior has an effect on the world, and can start coming out of their shell. It also teaches dogs to be creative, which can be a wonderful way to promote mental exercise. (Pat Miller has a great article in Whole Dog Journal comparing luring and free shaping, and some good ideas for free shaping games with your dog.)
I can’t say enough good things about the workshop at NEI. It’s pricey, but if you can find the money it’s worth it and more. For five days, 24 of us (I’m guessing 2/3 training professionals in zoological parks, 1/3 dog trainers) spent half our time hearing lectures from Dr. Friedman and Steve Martin. You’ll never see better training videos anywhere. Ever. Honest. Operant conditioning and positive reinforcement is a topic I know a bit about, and yet I still learned a lot. The other half of our days was spent in a team with three others and a coach. Meg, Blake and Jane and I were lucky to have Wouter as a coach. I learned so much from him, not just about training, but about coaching. My primary goal was to improve my timing; it seems like I’ve gotten slower starting a few years ago. I definitely improved, although I’d still have a long way to go to match that of Wouter. I can’t recommend this workshop enough. They hold it twice a year, at least will next year–if you can possibly make it, I highly recommend it. I’ve rarely been in such a supportive and engaging environment.
Clearly Skip has something to learn about multi-tasking, never really good for any of us. Here’s to a week for you of focus, on as many good things as possible.
This was a super timely post for me! I welcomed a 16 month old rough collie into my home a few weeks ago, removed from a breeder’s program for some minor deviations from the AKC SOP, and more significant deviations from the temperament the breeder was going for (basically, compared to the classic RC, she’s a bit too intense about things sometimes, no actual vices).
She’s one of the fastest learning dogs I’ve had. A bit like George, she’s also MUCH more willing to stay engaged in training when I provide information to make it clear there is a goal to the behavior – usually through luring/prompting. We’re working on building interest in free shaping (yes, through games with a box!) but at the risk of sounding like I’m anthropomorphizing, she really seems to enjoy the idea of a goal, hitting that goal, and then moving on to learn something else…otherwise she gets frustrated. After about a minute with the box, I swear she gave the doggy equivalent of the “Whatever, man. I’m out” look I usually get from my cat when he’s bored, and she checked out. I would argue most of the reasonably confident dogs I’ve worked with would say they prefer luring/prompting training to free shaping, if they were able…whether that’s actually relevant, I’m not sure.
Susan Wroble says
Thanks for reposting this one. I wasn’t yet following your blog five years ago, and — as is so often the case with your posts — I learned a lot. I think our family is not good with dropping the rewards as quickly as we should. We haven’t figured out the timing of that yet.
Stacey Gehrman says
Enjoyed this article. It makes good sense and helps even new trainers to understand the process.
Susan, I find it takes a lot of energy and focus to drop lures and prompts, so you are not alone! You’ll get better at it as you practice.
Rachel, regarding what type of training dogs prefer. Have to admit, I’d prefer L/P myself if being asked to perform something whose goald I didn’t know.
I’m with Skip. The reward of cool water beats almost anything else. Is he a Pisces? 😉 Our focus has been on staying calm and cogent. It’s not easy these days.
Ha LisaW re Skip being a Pisces! I think he is? But every working BC I know loves the water tank. (But Maggie won’t lie down in it, just cools her heels as it were.) And here here to calm and cogent, a difficult accomplishment for all of us now.
Great article, thanks! And re: Skip — working hard or hardly working? ❤️🐾
Barb Stanek says
LOL about Skip herding sheep from the water tank! Gotta love that dog!
Thanks for a repeat of the article. I loved it the first time, and I love it the second time. Immediately checked the website to see about future seminars. Been meaning to do that for 5 years. Never too late!
I think, to a certain degree, it’s a personality thing. Some beings enjoy the challenge of figuring out a ‘puzzle,’ – so long as it doesn’t reach a high level of frustration. (Free shaping.)
But most are motivated by an obvious goal/reward scenario. (L/P)
Good point Gayla! I suspect with dogs it’s mostly about whether we want the dog to do something it wouldn’t do naturally or frequently, versus the opposite. Make sense?
leila sesmero says
I have been taking the “7 Days Challenge” online course related to scent detection, offered by Dr. Carla Simon from Hunters Heart Detection. The dogs I trained passed this challenge and want more of it! Very motivated by my glove which is imbued by own scent. It is certainly based on luring first by putting food over a glove imbued by my own scent. There is no prompting. Dogs are natural scavengers and will look for this glove once they learn the value in it. So I don’t know where the free shaping occurs really. In this case, I feel the instinct kicks in so rapidly: Search , find. based on predatory instinct. Then I upgraded myself to her second online course where the game gets harder, requiring L/P where the dog needs to freeze, and stare at a toy offered as a lure. The R+ is the toy being tossed away from the dog. It’s a challenging course and worth trying. I am learning the value of L/P now once I conditioned the dogs to find value in my “glove” scent…
Oh man, the Skip video made me laugh.
The dog (parrot, etc.) gets a vote on which technique works best. My first dog was an extremely independent-thinking beagle-retriever mix, but on the 99th percentile of food motivation. Consequently, anything that could be trained by “follow the treat” was a piece of cake to teach. Climbing a ladder, sliding down a sliding board, army crawl, rolling over, etc.
I learned this in basic training class. They wanted us to teach recall followed by “finish” (dog circles around back and finishes in heel position). My poor dog struggled to understand what was expected until I finally, out of desperation, grabbed a treat and lured her through the proper motion.
I still remember her looking at me as if to say, “Why didn’t you just tell me what you wanted?”
Ranger enjoyed figuring stuff out on his own so free shaping was fun and rewarding for him. Finna always wanted to understand what was desired; lure and prompt was her preference. She was terrifyingly brilliant so show her once was all it took. I’m still figuring D’Artagnan out. He’s discovered that learning new things is fun so he’s starting to offer behaviors without luring or prompting but I think he still feels most comfortable if I show him what I want. I will say that it’s a very different dynamic training a guardian breed rather than herders. Ranger and Finna were very much wired to want to work with me. D’Artagnan had to be convinced that it would be worth his while.
And just because, here’s an amusing D’Art story. A couple days ago a friend came across the water in his boat, anchored near a park that’s pretty close to us and motored in on his dingy. We brought D’Art and met up with him for an appropriately masked and distanced visit. As it started getting dark we walked him back down the pier to the dock so he could motor back to his boat for the night. Our friend went down first, followed by my husband, and then D’Art and me. It was a different style of ramp than D’Art had seen before so he had to think about it first but decided he’d go down, then walk along the dock to where the dingy was tied up. He saw my husband get down to untie it and our friend hop in the dingy. That’s when D’Artagnan slammed on the brakes and turned to leave. It was as clear as if he spoke English that he thought we were all going to get in the dingy and go somewhere and his reaction to that was “oh heck no!” I did my best to reassure him that wasn’t going to happen while laughing. Apparently he’s discovered that we will encourage him to do really weird and challenging things from time to time. And that it’s OK to say no.
Kelly Schlesinger says
Skip made me laugh out loud. He is clearly in management.