Eric Brad explores ways your dog can become a success in training — and have a great deal of fun in the process.
How do we learn things? If I do something and the results are something I like, I’m likely to do it again. If I don’t like the results, I’m probably going to try to avoid that thing next time. It seems pretty basic but that’s how most learning occurs in humans. The same logic would apply to dogs, right? Of course, but he important thing here is to think in terms of something your dog would like or not like. When you are teaching your dog, you have to see it from your dog’s point of view. That’s how dog training works.
Over a century ago behavioural scientist Edward Thorndike suggested that behaviours that are closely followed by satisfaction will become firmly attached to the situation and will be more likely to reoccur when the situation is repeated. Conversely, if the behaviour is followed by discomfort, the connections to the situation will become weaker and the behavior of response will be less likely to occur when the situation is repeated. Prominent behavioural scientist B.F. Skinner put it more succinctly when he said, “Consequence dictates behaviour.”
Can we use that to be more effect in communicating with and training our dogs? Definitely!
Getting Your Dog in the Game
When it comes to teaching our dogs, I believe there is one item that always has to stay at the top of the agenda. We have to keep the dog interested in doing the “training thing” with us. Let’s face it, there’s lots of interesting doggy stuff to do out there: bark out the window, sleep, bite the squeaky toy, sleep, patrol the kitchen for crumbs, sleep, find mom’s shoe and drag it around the house, sleep — you get the idea. All of those activities have their own rewards for our dogs and so they engage in those activities because they enjoy them. In a sense, we have to compete with all that. We have to be more interesting than that stuff.
Traditional dog training methods seem to approach training from a “because I said so” point of view. Our dog is supposed to work with us because we decided it’s training time and they don’t really have a choice. Clip on the leash and collar and let’s go. Positive training methods like Clicker Training take a decidedly different approach. Bring out the treats and toys and let’s learn something! Getting back to Skinner belief that “Consequence dictates behaviour”, most dogs will decide that if there are treats or toys involved, I’M IN — Let’s TRAIN!
But letting our dogs know that there’s good stuff in the training game for them is just the start. Now you’ve got your dog’s attention. What’s the best way to KEEP that attention and enthusiasm for training once we have them engaged? The answer to that question can be different for different dogs. But there are some general things that you can do to make sure your dogs WANT to train with you.
When training our dogs, we have some simple rules to make sure our dogs always look forward to training time. The rules aren’t for the dog, they are for us — the trainers. They are meant to create a very enjoyable experience so the dog wants to come back and play again in the future.
- The Contract: The most important thing is that we stick to the rules of our training game. Since I use a clicker and rewards when training my dog, the basic contract is that if you do the thing I’m looking for, I’m going to mark it and pay for it. Vince, Tiramisu, Mario, and now Rizzo all came to depend on that basic rule: if you do something for me, you get something in return. I’ll make it worth your while to try. I can’t stress the importance of this consistency enough. If your dog starts losing faith in this basic deal, their willingness to train starts to fade and their responses become inconsistent. It’s in your own best interest to keep your dog engaged with a fair deal that works EVERY time. It’s a foundation of TRUST that will become the most valuable tool you have.
- Winning is easy: It’s important that our dogs win much more than they lose. After all, who likes playing a game that you can’t win at least half the time? You might as well do something else. Treats are no good if you can’t find a way to get them. So our rule here is that our dogs need to be successful 70-75% of the time. If I ask my dog to turn in a circle, that might be too much for him to figure out all at once. Do I wait for him to figure out that he needs to turn 360 degrees or can I just reward him for moving to his right? Well, if turning to the right pays off, maybe turning MORE to the right also pays off. By rewarding smaller pieces of the behaviour I’m trying to teach, I can keep my dog successful and build up to the complete behaviour over a few training sessions. I get what I want, my dog gets what he or she wants and everyone wants to play again! We get to decide when our dog earns the reward, so to keep them in the game, sometimes we move the goal around to lead them down a road to what we eventually want. The main thing is that they keep playing.
- Know what you want before you start: We only work on one behaviour at a time in a training session until we’ve put a cue on a finished behaviour. This helps our dogs know what’s going to pay off and what’s not. So whatever that one thing is that we are training, we must know what it looks like before we start so we can mark it and pay for it when we see it. The first behaviour we train our dogs is usually “Touch” — touch your nose to my closed fist. When my dog’s wet nose touches my fist, I mark and reward for the behaviour. But then I also have a plan and it’s kind of like a Dr. Seuss book: Can you touch my fist over HERE? How about over HERE? Can you touch it high or low? Can you touch it on the go? Can you touch it under my leg? And so on. But I alwaysknow what I’m looking for so I can mark it.
- Playing Goldilocks: Part of training this way makes us be a bit of a Goldilocks when looking for behaviour. Sometimes we will ask for too much and the dog will get confused or frustrated; sometimes we ask for too little and the dog can get bored or stuck on a behaviour. But we have to play the “too much, too little, just right” game to find out what our dog knows and what they don’t. If I’m teaching my dog to “Touch” as described above, my dog may be able to reliably “nose” my fist from four inches away but if I move it out to three feet, the dog doesn’t know know what to do. Uh oh! I’m asking too much. If I move my fist in to 10 inches and they get it, that’s just right. Let’s practice that a few times before asking for a bit more. This is where the 70-75% winner rule comes back in. As I play Goldilocks, I need to be sure that winning happens more frequently than losing.
- Sometimes “helping” doesn’t help: I remember Karen Pryor once saying that talking to a dog while you are training it is like singing in the ear of a child who’s trying to work an algebra equation. It’s a very human thing to want to be encouraging or soothing or helpful during training but excess talking and movement can become more of a distraction than a help to our dogs. The best thing we can do is clear away everything but the most essential information they need to learn the behaviour we’re training. It can be very important to be still during training, to refrain from constantly reassuring our dogs with verbal praise, and to give them enough time to figure out what we’re trying to teach. It’s not unreasonable to give them 20 or 30 seconds to work out what’s going on.
- Short and Sweet Sessions: We try to keep our training sessions short. We rarely work on a behaviour for more than five minutes or so at a time. Learning new behaviours can be fatiguing for dogs even if they are successful most of the time. You’re going to know your dog better than anyone else and you can recognize the signs of fatigue or frustration. If a particular training approach is not working as well as you had hoped, there’s nothing wrong with asking for a few well known behaviours so you can reward your dog and calling it quits for a while. Don’t forget, the most important thing is that our dog WANTS to play the training game again. Find that point in the session where you’ve had lots of fun and success and quit. It’s best to leave your dog thinking “Awww, do we have to quit? It was just getting GREAT!” In this way, your dog looks forward to the next training session.
Just the Start
That’s the basics of how we play “Training” in our house. Tira and Rizzo start bouncing around when the clicker and the treats come out because they know that the FUN is about to start. We were careful in the beginning to introduce them to this style of training with lots of success and lots of rewards, starting them out with really easy behaviours. We carefully managed their progression through more and more complicated behaviours using the Goldilocks technique.
Most of my students who have become frustrated with positive training have been too results oriented. They were too focused on getting what they wanted and not sensitive enough to what their dog was getting out of it. Sometimes they were too demanding: asking for too much and rewarding too little. Other times they worked too long — their dog was doing fine but after 15 or 20 minutes, the dog needed a break and wasn’t getting it. That can be unpleasant, even if you are doing your best to reward the dog. Sometimes it’s time for a break.The basic principles and processes of positive training are simple and easy to do. A child can be an excellent clicker trainer in a very short time. But it’s also easy to try for too much and you can have too much of a good thing.
I would encourage you to try this at home — try to teach your dog to “Touch” your fist with his nose as I described above. Start with your fist very close to your dog’s nose, so close that he almost hit it by accident. Mark and reward. Gradually start holding your fist further and further away. Keep his success rate high. If he starts to look confused or unresponsive, move the fist a little closer.
To begin with, keep your sessions short by setting a number for yourself. For example, do 10 successful touches and then quit and have a little play. A little later in the day, do some more training. After a few sessions, you can move up to 15 or 20 touches in a single session. Keep it short and fun and leave your dog wanting more!
Next week we’ll explore some myths about clicker training that you may or may not have heard. Until then, here’s a link to some basic tips on how to use clicker training effectively.
Have a great week!
Clicker Dog – from http://www.Trainingforobedience.com
Rizzo © Petra Wingate 2010
Video – What is Clicker Training? – Youtube Kikopup 2010