You know the kind, the dog that stares at you after you give a particular cue, waiting to see evidence that you have a treat that they will get. If that evidence is shown, they respond to the cue. Otherwise, they high tail it off to investigate better options. A frustrating loop to find yourself in!
Likely the dog has learned that if there is no sign of an immediately available reward, that there will be no reward forthcoming. I'm certain that you didn't intend to teach this - but it happens fairly frequently without us being aware of it. The good news is - it is fixable.
Step 1: We need to think about why it is happening so that we can come up with a plan. For example, if I'm trying to fade a lure and my dog won't lie down without a lure, the absence of the lure is the issue. If my dog will come when I call in the house without a treat but not outside, then the location may be the issue.
Step 2: We need to stop rehearsing the undesirable behaviour of not responding to the cue. Now that we know what the issue is, we need to put in place some management. For example, if my dog won't lie down without a treat in my hand, for the next several days to a week I will always put a treat in my hand before I ask my dog to lie down. That way, I won't get stuck in the cycle of cuing the lie down, no response, fishing out a treat to make it happen. If I have a dog that won't come when called outside, the dog will go back on a long line while outside until they demonstrate an ability to come when called in that environment. The long line is not to reel them in - as that won't teach them to come when off leash, just when they feel the leash pressure. It is to keep them safe, prevent them from moving further away after being called, avoid chase games and frustration of not being able to get my dog inside when I need to.
Step 3: We have regular training sessions to address the issue. Unless I am purposefully using a lure, treats will reside in my pocket or training pouch unless they are in the process of being delivered to my dog's mouth. They will not be held in my hand. My hands will be out of my pocket or pouch unless I have already given the marker and am in the process of delivering the reward. Our dogs watch our body language closely!
For the dog that won't lie down, I will structure a training session where I cue 2-3 lie downs in a row with a treat lure in my hand, marking the moment the dog lies down and rewarding with the treat. Then, holding my hand exactly the same way, but without a treat in it, I will cue the dog to lie down (which they likely will, based on the pattern) I will then mark the moment they do and immediately reach into my pocket and give them a treat. The stronger your dog's understanding of your marker (word or click) that means they will be getting a treat, the easier this step is to do, as the dogs start responding to hear the marker, knowing it predicts a treat. Once your training sessions are going well, remove the warm-up lie down cues with a lure and reward generously responses to your cue without a treat in your hand. If your dog doesn't respond - DO NOT pull out a treat and lure them. That puts you right back in the trap. Instead, you could ask for something else, reward with praise only, and cue the lie down again. Still no response, I would pack up the training session and try again later. This is not your dog "winning" - remember, they want the treat. The treat that you packed up and didn't give them.
For the dog that won't come when called outside, I will have several refresher recalls in the house, calling them to come and rewarding them for doing so. Then we will go outside on a leash or long line. I will stand in one spot and allow the dog to look around for a bit. Then I will call, in the exact tone I used inside. Likely, the dog will come. If not, I could look at also moving away or using some verbal encouragement. As soon as the dog starts moving toward me, I will use my marker and then reward the dog upon their arrival. Over time, I will make my training set ups more challenging, calling while my dog is interested in something else, or before they have had much time to look around. When I reach the point that I'm barely using the long line at all, and my dog will return to me when called without any tension on the line, I would consider removing the long line and doing some training sessions off leash.
Step 4: Treats off your body.
If your dog learns that you can make great things happen, you don't need to carry rewards around with you. This is basically an extension of removing a lure. Cue your dog to do something, once they do, mark that and tell your dog "let's go get a treat!" and move to the treat storage location talking to your dog happily. Give them a treat. Through doing this, your dog will learn that their actions can inspire you to get them a reward, even if you don't have anything on you. A very useful understanding for them to have.
Step 5: Maintaining the Response
Now your dog lies down without a treat in your hand, or comes when you call outside. Now it is tempting to stop the treats altogether. With some dogs, you can do this and still maintain the behaviour with praise or play. But, consider for a moment the impact it would have on your dog to sometimes also get a treat. It's kind of like us working at a job. Kind words from the boss are nice, but a bonus is often better! So don't be a scrooge - sometimes surprise your dog with a little extra, and if your dog responds in a way that delights you, hand over that bonus. It increases the chances that your dog will strive to delight you again.
- If your dog has been consistently doing a behaviour and suddenly stops, consider that there may be a medical reason and have your dog looked at by a vet. Trying to teach through pain or illness is not a good plan.