Can dogs learn something other than tricks and behaviours? Definitely. Can we shape their outlook on life and the world? Yes!
Rizzo came into our lives just about 20 weeks ago. And while he came with copious amounts of love and energy and joy, the responsibility was ours to teach our new puppy about life — life with us, life with others, life in the bigger world outside.
There was a time, not so long ago for my wife and me, when a new puppy meant preparations and regulations and guarding against the anarchy and chaos that a new dog can cause. That all changed about seven years ago when we raised our first puppy using behavioural science and clicker training.
Learning the technology of clicker training changed the way we interact with our dogs. At first it was a fun and highly efficient way to train our dogs to give us the behaviours we wanted from them. But we quickly learned that becoming a good clicker trainer changes both the trainer and the dog in some pretty important ways.
Contracts and Trust
One of the first things we had to learn as clicker trainers was the basic contract that makes clicker training work. When your dog hears a click, they will get paid. Every time. No exceptions. It’s the basis on which all clicker training works. Rizzo learned to depend on that signal. Click means treat. Of course, it’s up to us as trainers to use that clicker properly to get what we want. But from the Rizzo’s perspective, there should never be confusion about what that click means. It means he has earned a reward.
Once Rizzo trusted that click as a signal of a reward coming, his learning began. Then it was up to Rizzo to explore the different things that can get the click (and the inevitable reward) to happen. His first steps happened almost accidentally. We always begin by clicking and rewarding the simplest behaviour — Rizzo touching our hands with his nose. It’s easy enough to hold our hand close enough that Rizzo can hit it easily even by accident. Click! Treat!
We could almost see it in Rizzo’s eyes when we started his training at eight weeks old: “Hang on a minute! If I…..touch my nose….to that thing….” Click! Treat! Woohoo! In a matter of only three or four tries, Rizzo began stretching out on his own to try to poke the hand with his nose. Within a few minutes, he was walking a few steps over to us to find a hand to poke. After a few more tries, he would run under a leg to poke the hand or hop up to poke it over his head. Every time he got his click her got a treat for his efforts!
Understanding dawned. Little Rizzo had worked out that he could control the click by offering behaviours. A new world had opened up for him to explore. What else could make the click happen? Once we had established that idea in Rizzo, the only limits became our ability to mark the behaviours we wanted to encourage with the clicker. The next few weeks became one big adventure in learning for Rizzo.
Cues, Commands and Information
A necessary part of clicker training is gradually fading out the use of the clicker and the delivery of treats every time you get a behaviour. You also have to put a name to a behaviour. We used to call those “Commands” — but now we call them “Cues.”
Some trainers don’t see a difference in those two terms but we do. When I look at Rizzo and say “Sit!” what I’m really saying is, “Hey buddy, here’s a chance for you to earn a treat if you put your butt on the floor.” That’s a cue. That’s very different from saying “Sit!” and meaning “If you don’t put your butt on the floor, you’ll regret it.” That, to me, is a command. One is a choice, the other really isn’t. A cue is a request; a command is an imperative. A subtle change of intention in asking for, and not demanding, behaviour changes the nature of the relationship.
One of the most interesting applications of “cues” with our dogs came from Karen Pryor’s article on “Cues as Information.” Instead of a cue being a request or demand for behaviour, cues can be used to convey information about the situation at hand.
One example of this was one of the first things I taught Rizzo as an Informational cue — “Let’s go in!” Every time I wanted to move into a new room in the house I would say the phrase “Let’s go in!” As a young pup, Rizzo naturally followed me wherever I went and so he came to associate that verbal cue with getting up from were we were and watching me to see what room we would go in next.
Before long, I was adding an arm gesture to this cue to indicate to Rizzo the direction of the room we were heading for. Now, with a simple wave and a “Let’s go in!”, Rizzo will race ahead of me into our TV room, the basement, the bedroom, where ever I indicate. We’ve done similar things with “Going out!” for being let out in the backyard. “Hup hup” is for getting on surfaces like beds or grooming tables, and “In your home” is for getting Rizzo to go into his crate.
Training for Life
All of this may sound like nothing but work for poor Rizzo. With so much to learn, it might seem like all we do with our little guy is work on teaching him the next new thing. But it isn’t like that. With positive reinforcement, training is Rizzo’s favorite game. Every lesson and every behaviour offered brings something good for Rizzo: a food treat, a game of tug, or even being let out back to run in the yard.
While we do have set times for training “sessions” to work on specific behaviours, we also keep our eyes out for training opportunities during our daily life. Someone coming to the door is an opportunity to teach Rizzo how we want him to greet company when they come over. A bark out the window is a chance for us to redirect his attention to show him how much of an alert is enough so the barking can stop.
All of this work brings us a lot more benefit than just Rizzo being a dog with good manners and a lot of interesting tricks he can do. Using clicker training and behavioural science teaches Rizzo some other very important lessons about life too — call them “life skills.” There are four that we find particularly important:
Creativity — Because Rizzo is encouraged to try things without fear of being punished for doing it “wrong”, he discovers that trying different things or even inventing new responses can sometimes pay off. “Give it a try, it just might pay off” might be how he thinks about it.
Persistence — We keep Rizzo’s success rate pretty high in training. We try to ask for only a little more than he has given us before so that he learns new things in achievable increments. So every training session offers lots of great rewards, and even if something is difficult or takes a while to learn, it always pays off. Rizzo might say, “If I just keep trying, this will eventually pay off!”
Focus — Training happens a lot in Rizzo’s life and it can happen any time an opportunity arises for us to show him how we want him to behave. Since training always involves “good stuff” like treats or play, Rizzo likes to focus on us when we’re around and not as much on everything else. If we want his attention, we get it. “There might be something good just around the corner so pay attention to mom and dad!”
Awareness and engaging the world — We work on a lot of different behaviours in a lot of different places. It’s important to try out even established behaviours in new places or with new distractions. New environments might even provide new and unique training opportunities (e.g., you can only get used to fast moving cars when you’re next to a busy street). If you asked Rizzo, he would tell you “Stay sharp! You never know what might get you a click or a reward so pay attention and check out stuff!”
Building a Dog
For Petra and me, training our dogs is not just about getting them to “behave” or to have good manners or to comply with our wishes. It’s about giving our dogs a healthy outlook on life and living with us. They should be able to count on us for more than food and water and shelter. Our dogs also count on us for clear communication, help when they are confused or frightened, and the security of knowing that their world will be consistent — yes will be yes, no will be no, etc.
There is no greater gift we can give to a dog, in my opinion, than to provide a home that shows them what’s expected and rewards them for their efforts. How comforting it must be for them to know what to expect and be given every opportunity to discover how to succeed and thrive.
Rizzo is seven months old now. He loves everyone. He likes to investigate when my wife rattles the pots and pans thanks to the “noise game” Petra trained him in. He not only tolerates this but looks forward to his hydrotherapy sessions for his sprained knee, something our previous dogs would have fought us to avoid. He faces the world head on with a smile, knowing we are right behind him every step of his journey.
Go go, Rizzo!
Watch Rizzo’s Hydr0therapy!
All photos and video copyright Petra Wingate 2010
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