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Targeting vs. Luring

We've noticed that newcomers to clicker training often ask the best questions about training and how learning happens. Sometimes the answers to these questions are more interesting and subtle than more experienced trainers may assume. Drawing on perspectives offered by ClickerExpo faculty, Karen Pryor, and other innovative trainers, we'll seek to shed a little light on the not-so-simple questions.

How does the use of targeting to "get the behavior" differ from luring a behavior?

Soon after learning that a click marks the exact behavior and tells the animal what earned its reward, newcomers to clicker training wonder how to go about getting that clickable behavior. On this point, the answer they hear depends on whom they ask.

Luring keeps the animal thinking about the reinforcement or the treat, while targeting gets the animal thinking about the task.

"Get the behavior" is one of the adages of clicker training. The saying reinforces the creativity enabled by the method: however you get there is fine; just get there. Or, as Karen Pryor points out, "There are as many ways of training a behavior as there are trainers." In general, however, trainers tend to turn to one of four methods to get the behavior: shaping, capturing, targeting, or luring.

When working with newcomers to clicker training, some teachers will suggest they begin with luring their animal into the desired position, then click and reward. Others ask their students first to teach their animal to touch a target with its nose (or paw or hoof or beak) and then to move that target to put the animal into the clickable position or motion. Using a lure or a target can jump-start a behavior, getting a trainer from point A to point M, T, or X in a few short steps. (Shaping is rich with its own benefits, but relies on clicking and rewarding incremental steps, and can be derailed by jumping over those steps. Capturing, a one-step training method, relies on a behavior being frequent and observable.) Both a food lure and a touched target lead an animal into position. Both "get the behavior." Is there any real difference between the two methods? Why do some trainers rely on luring while others opt for targeting?

We asked trainers and teachers with experience with a range of animals and training goals these questions. Their consensus is that the methods have some similarities and important differences.

Both methods require an eventual fade of the lure or the target so that they don't become the final cue for the behavior. Both carry a risk of the trainer becoming as dependent on a physical prompt as is the animal to complete the behavior. Pet class teachers often hear the lament, "I can't get him to lie down without food in my hand. If I don't have it, he won't do it." These beginning trainers fear losing the progress they have made toward a desired behavior without the method that got them there. (Experienced trainers are not immune to this worry and may also hesitate in fading a lure or a target.) The speed with which luring got the trainer to see the desired behavior is reinforcing to the trainer, and reinforced behaviors endure in trainers as well as learners.

Despite the apparent similarities, however, there is an essential difference between luring and targeting. As Ken Ramirez, ClickerExpo faculty member and Training Director for the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, explains: "In luring, the animal is focused on the food. The trainer uses the food to guide the animal toward a desired behavior, just as a trainer would use a target to guide the animal. What goes on in the animal's head, however, may be significantly different. Luring keeps the animal thinking about the reinforcement or the treat, while targeting gets the animal thinking about the task."

While both methods may succeed in getting the behavior, a lured animal may be so focused on the treat that it is not aware of what behavior it has just accomplished to earn the reinforcement. Less learning, therefore, has been accomplished. An animal that follows a target, on the other hand, may still be working to receive a treat, but because the treat is not right in front of him, the animal must think about the actual behavior. The result is an animal that is more engaged in the process, has accomplished more learning, and is more able to apply that learning to any number of other behaviors.

Kay Laurence, of Learning about Dogs and Teaching Dogs magazine, prefers targeting to luring because of the flexibility it offers. She asks her Border collies and Gordon setters to touch targets with their noses, and their paws, and their tails, and their hips. The result is an ability to combine a series of cues to direct the dogs into desired positions: left back paw on step, nose on right front paw, and so on in infinite variety. Kay's fine tuning of the use of a target underscores an important principle for newcomers and experienced trainers alike: Many behaviors we humans think of as a single behavior are, in fact, combinations of multiple behaviors. A down is a down, but there are many ways in which a dog can lie down (front feet first, back legs first, on its side, or legs tucked under its belly). Creative use of a target can help a trainer to guide the components that make up a completed behavior, rather than a broad approximation of the behavior.

At its essence, targeting engages the animal's mind, rather than its appetite. It allows the use of food to be maintained as a reinforcer of behavior, rather than a stimulant of behavior. And it enables trainers to be as creative as they wish, and to extend the applications of clicker training as far as they can imagine.

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Gale Pryor is a writer and editor at Pen and Press, an editorial services and consulting company. Her writing credits include Parenting Magazine, Mothering Magazine, Teaching Dogs, National Public Radio, and two bestselling books.

Targeting with a puppy.

This is very useful information for me! I have just been taught in puppy preschool to start 'targeting' using the palm of my hand. I like the exercise, but didn't really 'get' what it was supposed to do until just now. Luring has been really successful for me to teach some basic behaviours, and phasing out rewards has been easy too. But seeing how quick my puppy has learnt to target my hand has made me think this might be the better way to teach new behaviours from now on. It makes sense that I would rather my pup be focussed on the task instead of just the food. Still not sure of the step by step way to introduce a new behaviour with targeting, but that just gives me something else to google!

I agree, sorta....

I agree that in most situations, targeting is preferable. However it would be assuming too much if we thought this was applicable in all situations. I am sure many of us have viewed the youtube video with the abused mule being asked to enter a wash stall. That stall triggered a sore memory and the mule did not wish to enter. The handler first used clicking of forward hoof movement, but in the end used food as lure, dropping pieces on the floor. The mule entered the wash stall, nothing bad happend. The mule left and re-entered when asked. Sometimes in my own experience, with severely traumatised animals, food as lure helps to allow the animal to over come fear with both situations and relaytionships. I am not asking them to perform a task, I am asking them to feel a feeling: Safe. I realize feeling safe isn`t always required in order  to cause an animal to perform, but I am sure for any who would come to this site, it is. My feeling is that animals experience post trauma disorders every bit as much as people. I have found playing with food as lure is a great way to over come fear, help them find their sense of humour. After that,  targets my preferred way.

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