Flower learns about luring

Flower the black and white hooded ratI’ve been reading through Kay Laurence’s Clicker Foundation Training: Level 1 book. The book deals with many important foundation skills, such as food delivery, targeting, shaping, and adding cues. This is a book that I’ve read through several times, but there are lots of gems packed into it and I find new ones each time I read it.

Kay gives some luring exercises in the second chapter of the book that help the trainer practice basic mechanical skills. These exercises are helpful for teaching a trainer the skills of handling food rewards, placement and delivery of food, using food to control the speed and direction of the dog, and using food to get simple behaviors.

(A note regarding luring: Luring has earned a bad reputation because most trainers are not skilled when it comes to luring and most animals have not been taught the foundation skills needed to learn a behavior through luring. When the animal and human both have good luring skills, luring can be a quick and efficient way to teach the animal a movement that you would like for him to perform. Check out this blog post for more about using luring during training.)

For fun, I decided to work through most of the luring exercises in the chapter with Flower, one of my rats. I say “most” because there are a few things in the chapter that it would be quite difficult for a rat to actually do. Flower and I have been playing around with this for a little bit of time each day over the past week. Here are a few things I’ve been thinking about as we work through these exercises that can contribute to successful luring.

Controlling pace. The first exercises in the book involve using a piece of food to move the animal in a certain direction – such as forward a few steps, in a circle around you, or in a figure eight pattern. To do this well, the speed of the food has to match the animal’s pace. This was quite difficult at first with Flower. I have not done that much luring with the rats, so we both needed practice. At the beginning, I often moved the food too fast, and Flower would get lost and wander off. If I moved it too slowly, she would try to eat it from my hand.

Amount of behavior. One common mistake with luring is asking for too much behavior. With Flower, I found at first that I was being “greedy” and asking for too many steps. She would get frustrated and wander off. So, I had to start with having her follow the food a step or two, and gradually increase the number of steps. With more complicated behaviors, I had to start by asking for small chunks of behavior, or she would invent her own version of the behavior. For example, at one point I ask her to follow the food through a narrow channel between some bricks. I asked for too many steps at first and she decided it was easier to jump up and walk on the bricks. So, we had to start with a step or two at a time.

Adjusting to the environment and to the animal’s natural movement. One of the final exercises in the chapter involves working at different paces outside. My rats don’t go outside, so we invented our own exercise and practiced some luring over, under, and around different obstacles in the rat play area. This actually turned out to be quite interesting! For certain behaviors, I had to really adjust the speed or direction of where I held the food, so that Flower understood and could do the behavior I wanted. For example, there is a horizontal wire wall that the rats climb up to get to the second level of the play area. I tried luring Flower up this route, but she wouldn’t go. After observing her, I realized that she often jumps this distance, rather than climbing. To make this work, I had to show her the food, and then quickly move my hand up to the top to show her where to go. If I slowly moved the food, she just couldn’t follow it because my hand was in the way of where she wanted to jump.

Working through these exercises has been fun because it has taught me some new things about my rats and has also helped me think more about what makes luring work or not work. Flower still hasn’t had that much training, so foundation skills and basic exercises are fun for both her and for me. We’ll probably be playing around with some more of the exercises in the Kay Laurence book over the next few weeks and I will report back!

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