Ian Dunbar is widely known as a reward-based trainer, and is often credited as revolutionizing dog training. But what people don’t talk about as often is which type of positive training he uses, and why. Today, I’d like to share with you the four types of reward-based training that Ian identified, and what he likes- and doesn’t- about each of them.
Plan A: Lure-Reward Training
Okay, let’s cut to the chase. Ian likes lure-reward training best, and I can understand why. Lure-reward training is generally very easy and fast to do, making it ideal for the average pet owner who just wants the basics, and wants them now.
Indeed, that’s exactly why Ian prefers it. Since dogs will predictably follow a lure, Ian says that you get a 100% response rate right from the beginning. (For what it’s worth, I think that’s an over-estimate. Some dogs are tragically difficult to lure into a down, but even so, you do get a high rate of response.) Because the dog’s success rate is so high, you can easily pair the behavior with the cue from the first repetition, making it the fastest way to get a behavior on cue.
Since the behavior is so predictable, Ian says that you can train with a differential reinforcement schedule from trial two in order to improve, not just maintain, behavior from the beginning. Ian also likes that lure-reward training comes with a built-in hand signal, and that you can work on several behaviors in the same session.
The downside to lure-reward training happens when people do it poorly. When people fail to phase out the lures in a timely matter, they become a bribe. Instead of using the treat to instruct the dog, people often become dependent upon using food to coerce the behavior from the dog. Ian also says that lure-reward training doesn’t always work with adolescent dogs, especially if the lure wasn’t faded out when he was a puppy.
Plan B: All-or-None Training
All-or-none training is Ian’s go-to when lures aren’t working because the dog sees the food as nothing more as bribe- and one less interesting than whatever is going on in the environment. All-or-none training seems to be Ian’s term for “capturing” a behavior. You wait for the dog to do the desired behavior, and then give a reward.
All-or-none training is easy. Either the dog is sitting, or he is not. It doesn’t take much sophistication, and as a result, is well-suited to basic behaviors and novice trainers. The down side is that since you aren’t giving any instructions (like with a lure), it’s hard to predict when the dog is going to do the behavior. In turn, this makes it much more difficult to get the behavior on cue.
Plan C: Clicker Training
Ian rarely uses clicker training, and he never uses it to teach the basics. Instead, he says clicker training is for anything you can’t get through luring or all-or-none training. Since he believes you can lure everything a pet dog needs, he doesn’t introduce it to his students until a level 3 or higher obedience class. Those dogs already have reliable behaviors, and he introduces the clicker to help refine the behavior, make it more precise, or make it flashier.
He doesn’t like clicker training because it is hard to attach a cue. He also believes that people click too often; because he thinks differential reinforcement is the best schedule to use, he believes that it slows down training if your dog is getting clicked more than 50% of the time. This number seems low to me- I’ve heard clicker trainers say that your dog should be getting it right 80% of the time before you increase your criteria.
Plan Never: Physical Prompting in Training
Physical prompting involves applying pressure with the trainer’s hands or by manipulating the collar in order to get a behavior. He includes tools such as shock collars and the Gentle Leader in this category.
Ian says that using physical prompting involves a lot of skill, more than most students have, and that in his experience, gentle prompting often turns into “physical splatting.” He also believes that physical prompting is a crutch which is incredible difficult to phase out.
Honestly, I agree. Although you can use physical guidance to help get behaviors, it is notoriously difficult to get rid of, so I generally avoid it. What I found interesting is that Ian doesn’t think props (like a physical channel to teach the dog to back up straight) are a crutch, and doesn’t find it hard to phase them out. I can’t comment on this- Maisy generally finds props scary, and it’s easier to find a way to teach a behavior without a prop as it is to desensitize her to the prop.
I have used all four of these methods. Most of Maisy’s foundation behaviors were taught with lures, because that’s what we were taught in our big-box store puppy classes. Once we began competition training, I started using a clicker to shape behaviors. I’ve done relatively little capturing and physical prompting, but I have used both. I don’t think any one of them is “best.” Instead, I choose my method based on the task at hand. I will admit that I tend to use shaping a lot because I think it’s the most fun. Still, Ian’s probably right that lure-reward training is easier and faster for the average pet owner.
What about you guys? Which method do you use most? Does it differ if you’re just starting out with a behavior? How do you choose which method to use? Do you think one is better than another? Let me know what you think!