Taking Your Dog’s Behaviours to the Next Level

November 2, 2013

If you have just started the adventure that is clicker training you are probably having such fun clicking and treating all the behaviours that are being “thrown” at you that you haven’t given much thought as to how to make the behaviours reliable and “fluent”.  In fact you have just entered the first stage of the learning process.  Any learning of a physical skill is more than just experimenting to see which behaviours can earn reinforcement.  It also includes:

  • Developing physical proficiency,
  • Adding cues and contingencies
  • Adding duration, distractions and distance
  • Developing the ability to perform under stressful conditions.

In order to cover all these bases thoroughly, you need to be pretty systematic in your training.  One of the ways of doing this is to break your training into three training stages.

Stage One:  This initial stage consists of formal sessions of more than one repetition in a non-distracting environment.  You will gradually, with shaping or successive approximation,  be building the behaviour you have visualised and when this is done adding a cue.  This is the stage where every single correct repetition is reinforced.  Your rate of reinforcement should be high enough that the dog is learning rapidly without disengaging.  No corrections at all.  Any “mistakes” are simply not reinforced.  If there are too many “mistakes” then you are raising criteria too quickly and need to go back a step or two.

To check whether the dog has learnt the cues and the basic behaviour is being performed to your satisfaction, look at the four corners of stimulus control.

  • The dog does the behaviour immediately upon perceiving the cue (bearing in mind that the cue does not always have to be a verbal cue).
  • The dog does not offer the behaviour without being cued
  • The dog does not offer the behaviour in response to some other cue
  • The dog does not offer any other behaviour in response to the cue

 Stage Two:  This stage is entered when your dog is performing the required behaviour to your satisfaction and will respond to your cue quickly and accurately.  You’re now ready to add elements like distance, duration and distractions.  You might even start generalizing the behaviour (see article on Generalization)  by “taking it on the road”.  You’re still aiming for a high rate of reinforcement.  No corrections if your dog guesses wrong.  Corrections at this stage of the learning process might slow down progress and this would be counter to what you’re trying to achieve.

Stage Three:  You will now start cueing the behaviour outside of formal sessions.  There is still room for formal sessions at this stage of the training, but now is the time to start introducing real life situations.  To do this you will only ask for the behaviour when your dog wants something.  You will start using environmental rewards for these behaviours such as asking for a sit before throwing a ball, or asking for eye contact before allowing him to play with other dogs; or asking him to wait at doorways and gates.  In this way you’re teaching your dog that if he does what you ask him to he will get what he wants.

What is Clicker Training?

January 19, 2011

The clicker is a small hand-held tool which makes a clicking noise.  The clicker is simply an effective hands-free way of communicating with animals.  It is a very distinct, unamibiguous sound (CLICK!) that tells the dog that what he has done (or is busy doing) is right and there is a reward to follow.  The clicker bridges the gap between the behaviour and the reward. It is not a magic “quick fix”, although in the hands of an experienced clicker trainer it looks magical.

Using a clicker has quite a few advantages over just using food without the event marker.  The clicker is…

  • More precise at identifying behaviour or parts (splits) of behaviour.  For example, if you want to reward your dog for making eye contact with you, you can catch the precise moment that his or her eyes meet yours.  The dog then understands that it is that brief contact that is being rewarded.  If you train only with food and lures the timing is difficult, as the second you move your food hand to reward that momentary eye contact, the dog will look at the hand holding the food hand and looking away is what you are actually rewarding.
  • Allows for a time lag before delivery of the primary reinforcer.  Because you have associated the clicker with the presentation of food (the primary reinforcer), the dog understands that the click predicts that the reward is on its way.
  • Allows for treat delivery to be more flexible.  Depending what you are trying to achieve in your training the treat delivery can be while the dog is in position (if you are working on sustained positions) or if you are training for some activity such as going out to touch a target and returning to you, the contact is clicked, but the dog has to return to you to get the treat.
  • Allows for easy resetting of the behaviour.  When you are working for repetitions to build fluency, the treat can be tossed away from the dog so that the behaviour is reset,  The training session becomes more efficient.
  • Affects Demeanour.  Tossing the treat after the click can activate a passive dog whereas feeding in position can calm a busy dog.
  • Enables movement to be marked and reinforced.  For example, you can click the dog while it is moving towards you, and even though you are delivering the food when the dog gets to you, it knows that it is the movement towards you that is actually being rewarded.
  • Allows for distance building.  The clicker is useful when teaching the dog to sit or lie down at a distance or to touch a target at a distance.

Some of the difficulties a lot of people have with using the clicker is the timing.  If the click is even slightly late, you might be reinforcing some other behaviour than you thought you were.  You get what you click for.  However, this timing can be practised without your dog and we all know that practice makes perfect!  I will describe some of these games in a subsequent post.

Dogs, even dogs that have never heard the click of the clicker before, take to it incredibly quickly.  It makes teaching your dog a breeze and fun for both of you.  It teaches your dog to think – and think they do.  There’s nothing more exciting than to see your dog have that “Eureka” moment when it knows exactly what you are clicking for.

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