In my last article on clicker training I explained how to get your dog’s attention. But now that you have it what do you do with it? Almost anything.
If you have done the – name – click – feed correctly you now have a dog that lifts his head every time you say his name, maybe comes running. And best of all, is excited every time you pick up a clicker.
In clicker training we use the word “cues” as opposed to commands. This is just semantics, but the point is that you are now requesting (not forcing) a reaction from your dog. Make sure that the dog is in a position to act upon you request. You wouldn’t ask a baby to jump hurdles – so don’t ask your puppy to do that either.
Make sure your request is logical and that the dog is in a position to physically and psychologically act. A command implies acting no matter what and creates unrealistic expectations towards the dog.
We use a clicker because muscle memory is faster than our ability to perceive and speak. Clicks are quicker, louder and more precise than vocal praise. By the time we say “good dog” the dog has already completed the action and he isn’t sure what we are praising him for – and by the time he gets the treat he no longer links it to the prior behavior. Furthermore the clicks always remain the same whereas our voice can give away frustration, disappointment and other emotions that dogs pick up on.
By teaching the dog that a click promises food we teach him to listen out for the click as the praise. With a bit of practice, this enables us to be more precise. We click when the action starts and catch the moment that we want to praise. All the rest (patting and treats) can come later as the dog now knows that he has done well and will get his reward. By hearing the click he knows to continue in the direction that he began.
Besides teaching our dogs how we want them to behave, it is also important and fun to teach them tricks. Tricks enable the dog to interact with the world around him in different ways. For example as opposed to just walking by your side, you can teach your dog to jump over things, walk on different surfaces etc. It helps your dog develop mentally and also helps him explore his abilities. This is great for building up the dog’s confidence.
Set your dog up for success
Sessions should be held when the dog is willing and eager – not tired or distracted. It also helps if the dog is a bit hungry. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t feed your dog before training. Very hungry dogs are likely to be distracted, over eager and unable to concentrate.
Putting your dog in situations where he is distracted/uncomfortable and asking him to show off his fanciest trick is going to end in failure. You will get frustrated and angry at your dog and you run the risk of poisoning your cue. It is also important to make sure your requests are realistic and not harmful to the dog. A dog might refuse to do something that is uncomfortable for him. Be observant enough to recognize the discomfort and don’t insist on the behavior unless it’s crucial. Also keep in mind that some dogs are so enthusiastic they will perform even if they are exhausted and in pain. Look out for the signs and be sensitive to the dog’s age and physical state.
Before teaching any new trick it is important to have a clear idea of what you want to achieve and how it will look. For example, if you are satisfied with a dog doing a down while lying on his side that is great. If you want a down while he is in an upright position do not reinforce while he is lying on his side. You can teach both but each under a different cue.
There are 3 main methods of training
Capturing means being aware of your dog and catching the wanted behavior when he performs it. This works well with behaviors your dog does naturally.
For example: teaching a dog to yawn/sneeze on cue. Watch your dog for a few days and identify the signs preceding the behavior that you want, then be prepared to click once you have identified that it is about to occur.
Why this works: you’re catching your dog’s actions in a natural situation as opposed to setting up a training session and waiting for something that may never come. Some of your dog’s behaviors are IMPOSSIBLE to manufacture and therefore this is the only way to teach them. Capturing reinforces behavior when the dog is least expecting it – reinforcing good behavior at random and unexpected times means your dog will never know when to expect the treat and will behave well more often in an attempt to achieve it.
Downfalls: you need to observe your dog and be at home when he does the wanted behavior. Also you need to have treats and clickers on you all the time or hidden in strategic places at home.
Luring is using food or toys as bait to move your dog into a certain position. You would put the “bait´ in front of your dog’s nose and as he tries to reach it you can maneuver him into the wanted pose. So for sit, you hold the treat a few centimeters above the dogs nose, as he looks up to get it move your hand slightly back and his bum will touch the floor, click-treat and you have a sit.
Why it works: it is quick, easy and simple to achieve. Works really well with both toys and food.
Downfalls: luring is bribing and if done incorrectly the dog will not perform the behavior without the lure. To avoid this, once your dog has performed the wanted behavior satisfactorily with the lure in front of his nose a couple of times, continue making the same movement as you did before (putting your hand above the dogs nose for sit) but this time without the lure. Have the lure in your other hand. Click – treat. Once again – after your dog has performed without the lure a few times you can also stop making the movement with your hand and merely give the cue.
This is kind of tricky and very hard for people who are used to being active in their dog’s training. With shaping the owner sits and waits for the dog to behave. No indication should be given to the dog on what is wanted. At EVERY move the dog makes in the direction of the wanted behavior we click and feed. Even if the dog has no idea what we want. It’s like playing “Hot & Cold” with only the hot.
For example: when teaching your dog to go to his place, put a blanket on the floor, sit in front of the blanket. Every time your dog looks at the blanket/goes towards it accidentally or purposefully, click and feed. Eventually the dog understands that he has to associate with the blanket. Thereafter click only once he actually stands on the blanket, thereafter once all four legs are on the blanket and so forth.
Why this works: 10 minutes of shaping is as exhausting to a dog as a vigorous walk. It’s great for draining energy on rainy days, teaching your dog problem solving and how to interact with all sorts of objects. Here the dog is an active participant, in effect teaching himself with your guidance. This means he understands and remembers the aim of the activity and will regularly offer it up. Basically this method can be used to teach your dog anything. In shaping you always need a clear picture of what the final action needs to look like. Even if you mess up, you can always go a step back and start again. Once the dog understands the aim of shaping, the sky is the limit and he will spend all his training sessions offering different behaviors.
Downfalls: requires a lot of patience, very good observation skills and accurate clicks. Missing the clicks that should have been given will slow the dog down and confuse him. Shaping is usually (depending on the dog and owner’s clicking and observation abilities) very slow at the beginning. Many sessions are required until the dog fully understands. This is NOT for everyone.
There is no single right or wrong method. As trainers we often mix and match, one behavior can be trained using all three methods, and sometimes we will teach using one method and then once the behavior has been learned, we will teach it again using another method in order to reinforce it. Some tricks are easier to teach with a particular method and some dogs learn better with one method as opposed to the others and so there are no hard and fast rules on which to use.
Remember, don’t expect your dog to show off his new found talent in front of people when he has only ever performed in front of you – if all your training session have taken place in your bedroom and now suddenly you’re trying to impress your fellow dog owners in the park (it happens to the best of us – who isn’t proud or their genius pet?) don’t expect your dog to succeed.
As a rule of thumb – if your dog has performed the action successfully 10 times in 10 different situations/locations – then your dog is familiar with the cue and then you can safely show off 🙂