Month: November 2015

What’s All The Clicking About?

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A well charged clicker gets your dog’s attention.

Clicker training is most commonly used in a technique called “shaping”, in which the dog learns a behavior in tiny incremental steps. The clicker is simply a noise used to precisely isolate the dog’s action, so she knows it will provide a reward. Think of how fast your dog can move, and you’ll know that you could be several behaviors behind by the time you say, “Good Girl!”. Part of using the clicker is that it encourages you to precisely mark behaviors, so your dog is clear on what is being rewarded.

The sound of the clicker has no inherent value until you give it a value.

clicker
The Clicker needs to be “charged”

“Charging” the clicker is like charging a battery…it gives it power. You charge the clicker by pairing it with a reward. With your dog nearby (small room or on lead) in a non-distracting situation, click the clicker and immediately provide a treat. Using part of the dog’s kibble (dry food) as treats is a good way to start. Do this before a meal, so the dog has a bit of an appetite. Do it about 30 times. You’re just giving your dog part of her meal slowly, but she’s learning that the sound of the clicker promises food. (She’s also learning to associate your nearness with the nurturing quality of food, which helps build a bond.)

Do this a couple times a day for 2 or 3 days, and your dog will get used to the clicker providing food. You’ll know it’s working when the click brings your dog’s attention to bear immediately on you.

Here’s a pretty nice video from Emily Larlham of “kikopup” on the basics. It’s great to see some of the amazing behaviors displayed here.

Please realize that the clicker is just a tool for clearly marking behavior. It has advantages and disadvantages. Here’s a soundwave comparison that I recorded of the difference between a click, the word “Yes”, and the word, “Yep”.

dog cues
The “Yup!” is the shortest, most clearcut signal, but the click is the loudest and most novel.

The click has two parts (the click and the un-click), otherwise it would be the hands-down winner. It’s downside is that it can be cumbersome, what with holding a lead, holding and using the clicker, and handling treats or toys. Your “Yup!” is always available, unless you have a mouth full of treats yourself…that said, the clicker is the tool of choice in “shaping”.

I think it’s good to charge the clicker and the “Yup!” We discussed the “Yup!” in this earlier blogpost.

In the kikopup video above, Emily Larlham briefly discusses the 3 main methods of  training:

  1. Capturing
  2. Shaping
  3. Luring

Clicker training is at its best in shaping, and, while it can also be useful in the other methods, learning to use your voice allows for a much more nuanced relationship with your dog. More about that in some later post.

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“All Or None” Reward Training

Ian Dunbar, one of the patriarchs of humane dog training, tells this story about his British TV show. If you’re looking for a real “dog whisperer”, Dunbar would be a prime candidate. (Be sure to check out his website, Dogstar Daily, a huge resource for info on understanding and training your dog.)

Ian Dunbar w/ his dog Dune
Ian Dunbar w/ his dog Dune

Here’s the story as I remember it: The producers would want him to train a behavior on the air, with a dog who was not previously trained. Dunbar would arrive at the set, and they’d sit him and the dog down, somewhere out of the way, while they spent an hour doing setup. By the time they got to filming, the dog would already be trained. Just by hanging out with the dog, watching his behavior, and rewarding what he liked, Dunbar would have just naturally gotten the dog under control.

This is a very informative lesson for folks who won’t find the time for dog classes or daily training sessions. It basically comes down to this:

  • Watch the dog. Reward behaviors that you like (which includes anything that isn’t problematic).
  • Remove any possible rewards for behaviors that you don’t like. (This usually means ignoring the dog and giving it no attention if it’s misbehaving).

Watch the 3 short videos below for more info on Dunbar’s “All Or Nothing Reward Training” method.

First, the explanation:

Then a demo:

Finally, watch this approach practiced in a classroom situation:

When dog owners say, “My dog was so smart, he just understood what I said from the beginning!”, they usually mean that they were unconsciously offering rewards (attention, belly rubs, kind words, treats, freedom to romp) that the dog valued.

For example, your dog picks up a tennis ball. You take it from him and throw it. He runs and gets it, and brings it back to you. Here’s what’s happening: Dogs recognize the chain of “behavior producing a consequence”. In this case his behavior is bringing the ball. The positive reward, or consequence, is him getting to chase the ball. The bringing it back part is him reproducing the behavior in order to repeat the positive consequence. Somewhere in there, the dog starts to associate the word “ball” with the body language you display when you say, “get your ball”, and the training has been achieved, mostly by the dog.

I’m a big fan of working with your dog to produce the results you want. Performing lots of repetitions, using an organized form of training, is like going to the gym and putting in the reps in order to increase your fitness; it’s not always fun, but you try to make it fun, and you know it’s good for you.

The form of natural training we’re alluding to here is like going for a hike in the hills with your friends: It is intrinsically fun, and the  increase in fitness is a by-product.

This method also raises your awareness of the fact that “training” happens every time you interact with your dog, and it’s a “plus” if you can recognize; 

  1. Who’s Training Who?
  2. What Behavior Is Being Rewarded Or Discouraged.

One Little Step At A Time!

Here’s a really simple exercise to start building your dog’s desire to check in with you and stay in close proximity. I’ll assume you’re starting with a dog who might just blow you off otherwise, so…

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Have your dog on lead, in your living room, with no distractions. Have some tasty treats in your pocket or hand, but not in your dog’s sight.

Then, just wait. For a minute, or ten minutes…however long it takes for your dog to get bored enough to look up at you. The moment your dog looks at you, deliver a treat, and take one step away. Don’t pull your dog with you. (The leash is just to keep him from wandering off.) Having just rec’d a treat, he should follow you. When he arrives and looks up, deliver another treat. Deliver it at your left hip, so the dog doesn’t cross in front of you. Make it a point to always deliver it there, so your dog gets used to that location as “treat central”.

If Rover doesn’t follow you, you may need to lure him once or twice by leading him with the treat, but no more than that. Eventually, you need to wait for him to work it out. Keep going, one step/treat at a time. When he obviously “gets it”, and follows along consistently, take two steps. Do that till he’s reliable. Then go to three. When he’s following along for 3 steps (this might take several five-minute sessions over the course of two or three days), try him without his lead. Since he wasn’t pulling on the lead anyway, this should be a fairly easy transition.

Also, after he gets the idea, start waiting for him to sit before you deliver the treat. If you’ve done any work with the “sit” command, this should come easily. If not, this “Kikopup” video is a good primer on training the “sit” command.

The next step is taking him out (on lead again) into the back yard, or some other outdoor location with no distractions. The lead is just to keep him from blowing you off. Do the exercise for just a couple minutes at a time, but do it several times a day.

Next, try it on your regular walk. Here’s a quick and dirty video of Suki, just to give you the idea. She’s off-lead here, but your dog should be on lead:

Eventually, you can stretch out the number of steps. Then use a variable number. Go 4 steps and treat, then go 12 steps and treat, then go 8 steps and treat…gradually raise the average amount of steps. (I’ve gotten Suki up to 40 steps while maintaining eye contact and walking at my side…after that, I get bored.) Sometimes I just walk along with her next to me for a long while, then give her a scritch behind the ears.

But the real payoff is this: Suki knows that it’s often rewarding for her to show up next to my left leg and check in with me. She’ll do it on a fairly regular basis, and sometimes she just gets affection, sometimes she gets affection and a treat, sometimes she just gets a treat. And, in situations where she needs to be on a lead, she knows there are no rewards available if she pulls. They’re only available when the leash is loose, and she’s next to my left leg.

Give this a try, one little step at a time!

Walkin’ The Dog

Many trainers put forth the idea that walking your dog is a training opportunity. In fact, every moment that you’re with your dog, training is happening, whether you know it or not. Your dog is observing your behavior and trying to suss out “what comes next”, and what produces good things for dogs.

Ian Dunbar suggests that, on a walk, you should make your dog reconnect with you every 25 yards or so. This could be a “come” command, or a “watch” command to get your dog’s attention, or, in a more trained dog, a distant “sit” or “down” command. If your dog is on lead, the first thing you might work on is “loose leash walking”; having your dog stay close without necessarily doing a precise “heel”. This video by Emily Larlham of “Kikopup” has some nice down-to-earth suggestions.

It’s good that she points out the fact that the dog walk is supposed to fulfill the dog’s needs and your needs. The more rewarding and fun you can make it for the dog, the better.

If your dog is safe off-lead, you can request behaviors and provide fun rewards. The reward can be food, as in the following little video of Suki on her daily walk, or freedom to range, or playing with a toy. In the video, I run a few steps, and Suki is rewarded by getting to chase me as well as getting a treat.

I use squirrel chasing as a big-time reward, since it’s one of Suki’s favorites. If she sees a squirrel in the distance, I’ll have her sit, then I’ll free her to go after it. (This is safe because she never catches one.) Of course, your dog needs to be pretty well under your off-lead control for this to work.

Suki is usually able to be off-lead, but I pay attention to her distance. If she strays too far, she gets called back. This trains her to not go too far away. (Her behavior of straying produces the consequence of getting recalled.) If she seems particularly inattentive, back on the leash she goes. From being a totally uncontrolled maniac, she has become a masterful loose-leash walker.

When I’m watching for training opportunities, there’s always something to do. If Suki is close to me, we can practice heeling, sitting, or tricks. If she’s away from me, we can practice her distant sit, shown below, or her “come” command.

Next episode, we’ll show a great little exercise for getting your dog to stay with you off-lead before you take him out into the world for on-lead training.