Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Let’s try some clicker training! First, your dog needs to understand what the clicker means. The click is going to mark the instant your dog performs the behavior you like, and it tells your dog reinforcement is on the way. You teach your dog what the clicker means by simply clicking, then feeding a treat, clicking, then feeding a treat, etc. Your dog doesn’t need to be doing anything particular at this point – you’re just charging the clicker up. Do 3-4 repetitions, then take a break and repeat later. After a few times, you should see that your dog seems excited to hear the click (ears perk up, tail wags). Now you’re ready to start using the clicker to help you teach a behavior.
There are a couple different strategies to teach a new behavior. You can lure your dog by putting a treat right on his nose and moving it around – move it up and back and he sits, drop it to ground and he lies down, move it in a circle and he spins. And you click as soon as your dog achieves the behavior you want, and give the lure as a reward. While this is a great way to get things like sit or down trained quickly, you’re not engaging your dog’s brain very much. It’s easy for your dog to follow the food without really thinking too much about what it is that you want. Where the clicker becomes a really helpful tool is in capturing and shaping behavior.
Capturing means you just sit there as an observer of your dog, wait for him to do what you want, then click and treat. When you have something your dog wants (like a toy or a handful of treats), he’s likely to try to figure out what he can do to get that good stuff. Bark at you? Jump up? Lie down? Click! Yes – down is the behavior you wanted! The click tells your dog that down earned a reward, and he should want to repeat that behavior again. Here’s an example of a captured trick: Payton’s itchy
Capturing is a great way to teach a new skill. But for more complicated skills, you may also need to use shaping. Shaping refers to marking (clicking) an approximation of the desired behavior. As an example, take teaching your dog to go sit on a mat or bed. If your dog is not in the mood for a nap, he might not spontaneously go walk over and sit on the mat. But, he might turn his head toward that side of the room – click & treat! And once he figures out that side of the room is important, he might take a step over that way – click & treat! Then two steps – click & treat! One paw on the mat – click & treat! Four paws on the mat – click & treat! Sit on the mat – click & treat! By reinforcing steps in the right direction, you can keep the dog interested in figuring out what it is that you want. Essentially, your dog is working to make you click. Here’s an example of shaping: Joan’s mat
The more you can encourage your dog (or other pet!) to think about what you want, the better your dog will get at offering behaviors that please you, and the clicker is a great tool to help you and your dog reach that goal!
Saturday, June 11, 2011
I recently did a session with a family for their new husky puppy. They wanted to be sure they got off on the right foot as far as housetraining, puppy biting, etc (Yeah!). When we started talking about training, the young daughter asked about a clicker. I was surprised (but excited) that she had heard about clicker training.
Clicker training is a great way to work on your pet’s behavior, but there is some confusion on how to use a clicker. A common misconception is that the trainer uses the clicker to make the animal do something. When used appropriately, the clicker is just information to your pet – it tells him that the behavior he was doing when he heard the click is going to be rewarded. It doesn’t make him do the behavior in the first place, but it tells him that the behavior was a good choice.
In scientific terms, the clicker (or a verbal marker word like “good boy” or “yes”) is a conditioned reinforcer (where conditioned refers to learned). What that means is that the click has been paired with an unconditioned reinforcer (which is something that is needed for survival, like food). We’ve probably all seen our pet’s face light up at the prospect of a delicious bit of food. By pairing the click with the food, the click comes to elicit that excited feeling in your pet. He will want to work to earn that click!
Why bother with a clicker though, if a verbal marker word can be used in the same way? There are a few advantages to using a clicker. It’s a much more uniform, consistent sound to our pet’s brain. When we speak, we naturally vary our tone, so when we’re excited, our verbal marker comes out “GOOG BOY!!!!”. When we got the behavior we wanted, but were frustrated with how long it took, our verbal marker might come out “*sigh* good boy.” To our pet, those are different sounds, while the click is the same every time. And the clicker is often better information from your pet’s perspective. We talk so much to our pets, that they can get pretty good at tuning us out. How many of us use “good boy” as a marker word, yet also randomly throughout the day say “Oh, what a good boy you are!” or “Hey buddy, you’re a good boy, aren’t you?” We tend to dilute our marker words by saying them randomly in casually talking to our pet. A properly charged clicker should always resonate with your pet.
There are disadvantages to using a clicker too. The biggest one is that you have to have the clicker with you to use it. While it’s pretty difficult to leave our voice behind when we go out to walk the dog, it’s easy to forget to bring the clicker. The clicker also ties up one of your hands, and it can sometimes be difficult to manage a clicker, and a leash and treats. But with practice, it becomes easier, and some of the results you can get in your pet’s behavior are well worth it. Next time we’ll look at how to charge the clicker and use it to train behaviors by capturing and shaping.