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.