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?
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