Just what does the clicker mean to your dog?
To my dogs; it (the clicker/marker word) means just three things:
- Yes, that was the correct behaviour
- Yes, there is a reward coming
- Yes, you can stop doing that behaviour
This is the way I have used clicker training for the last 20+ years. I like the clarity it gives to my dogs; there is no guessing on their behalf, they know they have got the behaviour right and that a reward is coming. There is no doubt in their minds as to whether they should continue with that behaviour or whether they are free to move about and ‘re-set’ themselves or to even have a break.
I know a lot of people use the clicker as a ‘Keep going signal’ meaning that the dog keeps doing that particular behaviour that has been clicked for. Don’t get me wrong, I do use a keep going signal (KGS)at times, it just tends to be a verbal one and one that isn’t associated as a marker; it is more a verbal encourager than a marker, such as super dog, aren’t you clever?
Why don’t I use the clicker as a KGS? I want the dog to be crystal clear on what the clicker means rather than having meaning yes that behaviour is over one minute and the next minute it is meaning keep doing that behaviour. I don’t want the dog getting confused as confusion can lead to frustration and frustration can become an emotional part of the training process; really not something that we want.
Yes, I know lots of people successfully use the clicker as a KGS, precision marker and add in a separate release cue such as’Break’ or similar. However, my preference, is to keep my training ‘clean’ and to only use the clicker (marker word) as an event marker rather than a KGS.
As a side note, I also don’t use the clicker for Two-fers and Three-fers, I always reward after I have marked a behaviour, I don’t get the dog performing multiple repetitions of that behaviour for multiple clicks and only one reward. The click/marker is a promise of a reward being delivered and I have no intention of breaking that promise.
Of course, if the dog decides to hold that position after the click, then that is their choice and depending on what I am training, I may reward in that position or I may want them to move so that I can ‘re-set’ them. When I’m using 300 peck for teaching stays, I usually find, that after a few repetitions, the dogs naturally choose to stay in position after the click and that is fine. If they do move between the click and the reward or the reward and the reset cue, then I’m not bothered, they have had ‘permission’ to break the position because I had marked the behaviour, and the click had ended it.
I am now experimenting with different markers that each tell the dog which reward is coming and how/where it will be delivered. So ‘Yes’ means the food is delivered to the dog and that they should stay put until the food arrives; ‘Get It’means the food is going to be thrown for them to chase; ‘Catch’ is fairly obvious and ‘Find It’ means search for food dropped on the floor. I’m also adding a marker that means drive to a dish/container of food (or the Memory trainer). ‘Go’ as a marker means yes you’ve done that correctly, now drive to that dead toy. We are working on ‘Fetch’ meaning chase a moving toy, ‘Take it’ meaning take the toy from my hands, and I need to clarify a tug marker.
We are having great fun and I’m loving the clarity that this approach is bringing to my training.
I will just add that, apart from using 300 peck to build duration, I don’t tend to switch to variable reinforcement schedules. My dogs are always rewarded for the correct behaviour; they are always on a continuous schedule of reinforcement. What I do move on to, is using variable reinforcers, so sometimes it is a piece of kibble that they get, sometimes, it could be roast beef. They maybe rewarded by being allowed to go and sniff or to go for a swim (or a wallow in the mud if your name is Asia). We might have a game with a toy, we might play chase games. They may get a scratch or verbal praise, their reward could be anything. The correct performance of a behaviour will always be rewarded.
So just what does your click or marker word mean to your dog?
Looks like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth right? But Leon (the dog in the header) was a very challenging dog in that he used to be people and dog aggressive and he’d also clear off with any toy (or dead rabbit) and just not come back with it (he’d be the opposite end of the field with it). He is an awesome dog, and ha taught me so much and pushed me to learn new techniques and to be creative about how I trained him.
He will be 11 in October 2018 and I can’t believe that we’ve shared 10 years together. Yes, he has driven me nuts, made me cry, caused me no end of stress and frustration, made me wonder why I took him, made me very ware of people approaching and of what they are going to do (he’s cute, cream coloured and fluffy and people just want to touch him, not what he needed). I’ve wondered what the hell I’d let myself in for and whether I was totally mad when I offered to keep him after fostering him for 3 weeks. He arrived with a bite history, had been badly handled and had learned to bite first and ask questions later. He didn’t have a lot of trust. He was a mess…he barked and lunged at people and dogs. He had to be muzzled to go to the vets otherwise the poor vet would have been bitten. He had no recall if toys were involved and was very experienced at playing keep away. Why oh why did I take him on? Why did I put myself through this?
i’m sure many of us that have these challenging dogs, have asked ourselves the same questions many many times? Why do we do it? Because the rewards are so worthwhile, even if no one outside of your family and friends every sees them. They will one day, trust me. Yes it takes dedication and yes, sometimes it seems that we take one step forward and ten backwards, but then on other days, we may take several steps forwards and none backwards.
The point of this rather self-indulgent blog? Celebrate your successes people, no matter how small they are. We are such a negative species and we really do beat ourselves up with things go round and mull over in our heads how we could have done things better. We lose focus on the things that have good well, we forget to focus on the goods things that have happened. We need to celebrate the successes, the times when our dogs made a good choice or when we made a good choice.
Smile and celebrate the times that your dog didn’t react to one of his/her triggers. Pat yourselves on the back for a job well done. You’ve got this, honestly. Look up, look around you and really notice your dog. Look at how far they have progressed, look at the trust that shines out of their eyes. They may not be perfect (yet), but they are making progress. They may be finding life tough outside of the home environment, but inside these four walls, they are with people who they trust and who love them, warts and all. You do love them,, otherwise you would have moved them on, in one way or another.
I remember, all too well, the sense of failure when we’d had a bad walk, the sense of frustration when things weren’t working out well and training seemed to be going so badly, the despair when nothing seemed to be working and we were making no progress for what seemed like months on end, but was probably only a few weeks. I remember going through stages when I hated Leon and hated myself, but then I stopped and took stock of where we were at that point in time and looked back to what we started with, and realised we had made progress, the boy was doing good; I had just got some tangled up in the negatives that I wasn’t seeing the progress.
My challenge for you today, is to stop, look into your troublesome pooches eyes, give them a smile and a cuddle (if they will let you). Let them know they are fabulous and then look, really look at just how much progress they have made. Every day make a point of noting down at least one good thing your dog has done that day and celebrate your part in that success. Step by step these successes will build and suddenly, one day, you’ll stop and notice that your dog now has a new doggy pal or a new human friend or he/she hasn’t reacted at one of their triggers for weeks. Please don’t miss this moment, they are so precious.
I no longer think of Leon as a reactive dog, he has his own circle of friends, he is safe to be let off lead around people and dogs and has ended up being a fabulous dog who has helped many troubled pooches to settled into my home and to teach them how to trust people/dogs and how to communicate and play. Yes, he is still special and I still don’t allow folks to touch him unless Leon invites them to, but I can relax when I walk him, I’m no longer hiding behind cars, finding secluded places to walk him or telling folks to keep away. He has raced in flyball for me (gaining his BFA Flyball Dog award), gained his Gundog Club Grade 1 and gained Bronze and Silver levels of the Kennel Club’s Good Citizen Dog Scheme. I know what makes him tick and I love him warts and all.
The saying ‘Reward the good and ignore the bad’ has a lot to answer for in how people view reward based training (and trainers). Some people seem to think that reward based trainers will ignore all sorts of bad behaviour (such as barking, aggression, chewing inappropriate things, jumping up at people etc.) and will just wait patiently, for the dog to stop doing that behaviour and do something that can be rewarded. This just isn’t the case and the saying is grossly over simplified (have a look also at my blogs Proactive not Passive and Changing Challenging Behaviour).
All too often, trainers just focus on using the 4 quadrants of Operant conditioning and forget about all the other ways that organisms learn and that can be a real handicap for a trainer. Yes, we know that rewarding appropriate behaviour with something the dog want, will lead to an increase in that behaviour (R+) and that with holding something the dog wants will reduce undesired behaviour (P-). We also know that positively punishing the dog (P+) by applying something that the dog will actively work to avoid, will reduce behaviour. We also know that removing something that the dog will work to avoid, will increase a desired behaviour (R-). What else do we need to know?
All too often, Classical Conditioning gets forgotten about (this does tend to go hand in hand a bit with Operant conditioning; it is difficult to split them completely). Classical conditioning deals with reflexes and conditioned emotional responses. A dog that is fearful of something needs to be classically conditioned to learn that the scary thing isn’t that scary. So the most fabulous rewards appear in the presence of the scary thing. I’m sure if someone offered me enough chocolate, I could eventually learn not to be frightened of Earwigs (shudder).
The opposite side of the coin is sensitisation, where a dog becomes more and more worried by something. This is a natural trait and helps keep animals safe from predators, but also occurs in pets where they can be overwhelmed in their socialisation experiences and become worried by something or it can be a by-product of using positive punishment or flooding.
Another understated method is Premack or Grandma’s Law (eat your greens and you’ll get dessert). Basically, Premack makes a less probable behaviour become more probable. Let’s use Beau as an example. She is a ball obsessed spaniel that really finds it difficult to ignore a tennis ball, even if she already has one in her mouth. The behaviour that I want to make more likely is her letting go/leaving the ball (She would much rather hang onto the ball, so this is a low probability behaviour). I reward her leaving the ball, by letting her go and get the ball (this is a highly desirable behaviour as far as she is concerned). By using a highly desirable activity to reward a much less desirable behaviour (as far as the dog is concerned), we are gradually building a more reliable leave.
The same principle can be used to increase the reliability of the recall. If your dog chases critters, then you can use that to help the recall away from critters. The chasing of critters is a highly desirable (to the dog) behaviour (high probability) and the recalling away from the critter is less desirable to the dog (low probability), but by allowing the dog to return to chasing after it has recalled, will make that recall from critters much stronger. Just bear in the mind that by the time your dog has called away from chasing the critter, it will have long gone by the time you send the dog back for it..they still get the fun of sniffing where it was.
How many other examples of Premack can you think of?
Then there is good old Habitutation. Basically, this just means being exposed to something and getting used to it. It should be a none (neutral) event really, with no positive or negative emotional responses. I used to live in a house next to a church with a chiming clock. When we first moved in, I heard that darn clock chime very quarter of an hour. It didn’t take long for that sound to become just background noise and I had to really listen for that clock chiming if I wanted to check the time. The same happens with people that live next to busy roads or next to a railway line. Allowing a dog to explore an environment before asking them to work is a form of habituation (or acclimatisation). The more environments they are used to being in, the faster they will habituate to new ones.
Socialising a puppy is basically habituation as we want the puppy to be used to every day things. It should be a neutral process or mildly positive (see Keep those experiences positive)
We could also talk about Flooding (sink or swim approach), but I really hope that no one uses this approach with dogs any more as it it not the most humane approach and just results in a dog shutting down through excessive stress and learned helplessness (if you can’t escape something, you just give in to the inevitable).
Extinction is another way for an organism to learn. A previously reinforced behaviour is no longer reinforced (rewarded) and gradually disappears. This often happens by accident, when the pet owner forgets to reward a desired behaviour and over time, the dog stops doing that behaviour and does something else that does earn them reinforcement. This often happens with behaviours such as recall and loose lead walking. Extinction, can result in a large amount of frustration. Just try not feeding a dog titbits from the table when it has had a long history of being fed titbits that way….you will see the frustration build and if you persist (many owners will give up), you will see an extinction burst and then the behaviour goes away. Take note though, you only have to reinforce that behaviour again and it will be back to full strength very quickly and this time, it will be harder to extinguish.
A better way to extinguish behaviour is to couple extinction with Differential reinforcement, where a different behaviour is reinforced and the undesired one extinguished. There are several approaches to using differential reinforcement: DRI, DRO, DRA and DRL
DRI – differential reinforcement of an incompatible behaviour. Your dog can’t jump up on someone is he is taught to sit. Sitting being incompatible with jumping up. Training your dog to go to its bed or to a mat when the doorbell rings is another form of DRI. I’m using DRI to teach Lara to leave me be whilst I am training another dog. In the video clip, she is being rewarded for staying on a platform while the other dog is working.
You could also use DRI to teach a puppy not to nip, by reinforcing for them carrying a toy, for example.
DRO – is the differential reinforcement of another behaviour provided that the undesirable one doesn’t occur with in a defined, fixed period of time. So if our puppy doesn’t mouth us within 5 seconds of being stroked or played with, then they are rewarded, no matter what behaviour they are exhibiting. You do need to know how frequently the mouthing occurs.
DRA – differential reinforcement of alternative behaviour. This is useful when it is difficult to find a behaviour that is incompatible with the undesired one, so another behaviour is chosen that can be reinforced.
DRL actually refers to differential reinforcement of lower frequency. The aim is to decrease the frequency of the undesired behaviour, but not necessarily to remove it all together. It doesn’t tend to get used a lot in dog training. Some trainers have defined DRL as differential reinforcement of lower intensity.
We also have Insight learning, Latent learning, Social learning, Counter conditioning, Systematic desensitsation and Observational learning to consider.
Learning theory and positive dog training is so much more than just rewarding the good and ignoring the bad.
Living with and working with dogs that are easily over aroused (poor impulse control) and those that are reactive to various things, I’ve recently be pondering about exercising these dogs.
Note: for the purposes of this blog, reactive dogs are those that lunge and bark at things like people, dogs, other animals, cars, jogger etc. I know all dogs are reactive (aware of and reacting to) to what goes on around them, if they weren’t they would be dead!
We are often told to make sure that these dogs have relaxing, calming walks and to allow them to sniff. This is because these activities are inherently calming. I have no problem with that as a main activity, but I do think dogs need more than this; they do need to burn off some energy by being allowed to runabout and to play with their handler (or other dogs if they are sociable). We are often advised that allowing a dog to run about is too adrenalising and will make it more reactive or ‘hyper’. The flip side of that is, that if a dog is never allowed off a lead to run about, it will have pent up energy just desperate to bubble out..think about it as a can or bottle of a fizzy drink that has been shaken up…all that energy needs to go somewhere and it will explode out once the bottle/can is open.
It must be very frustrating, as a dog, when you are kept on a lead for the majority of your walks, even if you are allowed to wander where you wish and for as long as you wish. Dogs do need to run and burn off their energy. Compare it to a toddler that has had to sit still for several hours and how they just have to have a run about afterwards. Consider how you would feel if you were only allowed to walk to the same places day in and day out and how much you’d enjoy doing something different. Conversely, I’m not suggesting that you just let your reactive dog off leash to do as they please, but they do need to trot, run and lark about.
In my experience, the lack of off lead exercising can make reactive dogs more reactive and can bring out other unwanted behaviours. With those dogs that can be over aroused, an off lead blast is a great way of letting off steam and you may well find that they are less easily aroused after a good run and less easily triggered as well as a bit less OCD.
Of course, finding safe places to let these types of dogs off for a good run, can be difficult. If you have a dog that is a car chaser, it can be hard to find an area to let them run where they won’t see a car and be tempted to chase. For those dogs that are reactive to dogs and/or people, it can be hard to find somewhere to let your dog run off lead where there are no people or dogs. Often times, we end up walking in very secluded areas or very early or late at night, so that we can avoid those triggers.
If there are no safe off lead walks near you, consider hiring a secure field for your dog to run off lead in. Several rescue organisations rent out their secure fields (such as Jerry Green’s and the RSPCA centers), some boarding kennels may rent out their secure exercising fields and, thankfully, there are a whole host of private secure fields that have been developed for dog walking purposes. These fields are usually available to hire for 30-60 minutes and some allow you to have dogs from more than one family sharing, so that you can have a safe place to meet up with your dog’s pals.
There is a fab resource on FaceBook called Dog walking fields – enclosed, private, off lead dog walking which has details of secure fields all over the UK. I’m lucky that there are about 4 secure fields within an hour or so drive from me. Check the page out and find a secure place to give your dog a good off lead run. Great places to work on recalls as well.
Try it out, just once a week and you may see your dog’s behaviour improve for the better.
Costs vary depending on area, but somewhere between £5 and £10 is the likely cost and once a week, that has just got to be worth it.
Thanks to The Paw Park at Sand Hutton for allowing me to use a couple of their photos
The Food Bowl that is.
We hear it all the time, don’t we? Don’t feed your dog out of their food bowl, let them work for their food out of Kongs and other food enrichment toys. There are some trainers and ‘experts’ that promote the idea that dogs should never get any food in a food bowl and that they should work for it all.
But is it really the best thing for the dog? Don’t get me wrong, I use food enrichment toys for my dogs. They have Kongs, K9 Connections, snuffle mats, slow feeding bowls and other food enrichment toys. I also use part of their daily ration to reward them for good behaviour during the day (and of course, they get ‘extra treats on top).
However, for some dogs, having to work for all their food causes huge frustration and this can tip over into training and may even result in behaviour problems such as food guarding appearing as well as things such as poor impulse control. We really don’t want frustration to tip over into training as it then becomes part of the behaviours that we are training (yes, emotions can be attached to behaviours during training) and when that frustration bubbles over the top, we can end up with an aggressive outburst and someone (or some dog) is going to get bitten.
Yes, some frustration is good as we do need to teach our dogs (and kids) some frustration tolerance, so that they can cope with delayed gratification rather than just wanting instance gratification. Too much frustration is not good and can lead to aggressive outbursts (bit like a temper tantrum in a child), so we need to avoid that.
We are often advised to feed young puppies (8 weeks of age) only from Kongs. Now young puppies need more food than an adult of the same size as they are growing so fast. They need to eat frequently and need nutrient dense food. They get hungry fast. The problem in feeding only via Kongs, is that the puppy cannot get enough food in its belly quickly enough to meet their hunger pangs. Hungry dogs will have low blood sugar levels. Low blood sugar levels can and do result in uncontrolled aggression. Just think how ratty and irritable you get when you are hungry. Hungry animals will resource guard food and people carrying food. They are hungry, so food is very important in their lives, so they will guard any source of that food; their Kongs, their owner’s treat pouch etc. and they will guard it from other people and other dogs.
Yes, there are plenty of puppies that have been fed only via food enrichment toys and have never developed resource guarding, but there are many that have, so it is something to be aware of. Some dogs are more food driven and struggle to cope with being made to eat their food slowly. Yes, we need to teach them to slow down (with having GSDs, I always worry about bloat).
Lara (GSD), has been horrendous. Even at 11 weeks, when she arrived, she has been almost frantic to eat her meals. Feeding her only via Kongs would have been an out and out disaster. She has been hard enough to teach to cope with using a slow feeding bowl, although she is better than she was and enjoys a meal from her snuffle mat.
With this ravenous-type pups,k they do need to eat the majority of their meals from a bowl, but you can also give them part of that meal in a Kong, on a snuffle mat or scatter feed it. This type of pup, can be very grabby over treats, so watch your fingers and teach them some slow treat control and Doggy Zen (see our online Self-control course).
Also. bear in mind what I said earlier; hungry dogs are going to be more impulsive, more easily frustrated, more irritable and easier to tip over into an aggressive outburst.
Feed some of each meal in a food bowl; the rest can come from a Kong or scatter feeding as long as it doesn’t take the dog too long to get the food into their belly.
When you first introduce Kongs, they should be really easy to empty and should empty quickly, especially for puppies. We need to them to get the food out quickly to have satiate their hunger. If we make them too hard to empty too soon, all we are doing is building frustration in an already hungry dog.
Gradually increase the difficulty of the Kong. For the really experienced Kong users, you may want to try freezing them first. For some recipe ideas, take a look at my frozen Kong recipe page
Don’t train a hungry dog. Even a dog that has had its meal will be happy to take food rewards (and their are loads of other rewards we can use other than food). Hungry dogs will lack impulse control, will get frustrated faster and will be more snatchy/grabby over treats and are more likely to tip over into using aggression. Make sure they have had at least 50% of their meal before you train (can be hours before your session) so that you have taken the edge of your hunger (and make sure you don’t train when you are hungry as you will be more irritable as well).
Kongs are fabulous as an entertainment toy; to keep your dog occupied for a little while. Heck, I use them myself and the dogs love them, but just be a little careful over how you use them and don’t make them too hard too soon or use them are the only source of your dog’s food.
My advice is to not ditch the bowl completely.
And How Does That Make You Feel?
By Deborah Jones, Ph.D.
The phrase “and how does that make you feel?” is pretty much a stereotypic response that you’d expect from a therapist. But as a dog trainer you probably don’t use that phrase very often. It’s particularly unlikely you’d address it to your dog. But that’s exactly what we should be doing; keeping a close eye not only on what our dogs are doing, but more importantly, on how they are feeling.
Dog trainers spend countless hours working on training specific and precise behaviors. They obsess endlessly over small details, plan out session after session, and troubleshoot solutions when problems arise. They understand and implement training plans based on operant conditioning principles, splitting behaviors into small parts and providing appropriate reinforcement. And yet, for all that care and attention, things still go wrong. The dog doesn’t learn the desired behavior…
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