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?
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.
When you live with a dog that is worried about people and/or other dogs, then walks can be a bit of a nightmare as you want your dog to enjoy some exercise/new environments but still need to ensure that other people and/or dogs stay away from your dog so that you dog doesn’t get upset and feel the need to react. It really is a balancing act.
Why is distance your friend?
Your have two critical distances around it and the size of those spaces will depend on the individual dog, and the outer one will alter with training.
The outer circle or bubble, can be thought of as peripheral space; outside of this space, the dog is aware of people and other dogs but isn’t worried by them. They are far enough away not to concern him at all.
Once a dog (or person) crosses that barrier and enters that outer bubble, then your dog will start to get anxious and the closer the other dog (or person) gets to the inner circle (the dog’s personal space), the more uptight and worried your dog will become.
If the dog (or person) enters the dog’s personal space, then the dog is likely to react. Dogs only let their close friends into their personal space, very much like we do. Think about how uncomfortable you become when a stranger gets too close to you. It’s only our social inhibitions that stop us from lashing out (well usually they do).
For some dogs, that outer peripheral boundary may be more than the length of a football pitch or more; for other dogs, that distance may only be the width of a street. Our aim is for out dogs to be comfortable to have dogs/people within that outer boundary and to shrink the distance of that boundary down to a more acceptable (to us) distance. This isn’t going to happen overnight and it certainly won’t happen if the dog is punished for showing signs that it is uncomfortable.
Your job is to keep people and dogs outside that outer boundary and to reward your dog for being comfortable when they are there (so lots of really tasty goodies or play with their favorite toy). The food (or toy) only gets produced when your dog is aware of the other dogs/person.
Sometimes, the other dog or person just gets too close and we need to be backing away and getting our dog away.
Here are a few tips for dealing with dogs when you are out walking with your dog reactive dog.
Both dogs are on lead
Cross over the road, do a quick U-turn and quickly go back the way you’ve come from, hide yourself and your dog behind a car, hedge or tree so that he doesn’t see the other dog. I’ve even nipped up someone’s drive way before now to avoid another dog. Basically put as much distance between you and the other dog.
If the other dog owner insists on following you, shout across to them that your dog has got kennel cough or some other infectious disease and that usually makes them go away.
Your dog is on lead and the other dog is off lead.
This is a slightly trickier situation, especially if the owner is not in sight or appears to be of the “It’s OK, he only wants to say hello/play” type. I cringe when I hear that phrase as it usually means that they are unable to call their dog back to them, no matter how politely you ask them to. I usually carry a pocket full (or more) of tasty treats. As the dog approaches, I grab a handful of treats, lift my hand up above my head (a signal for sit) and shout at the approaching dog to sit and at the same time, I throw the treats straight at it. The startled dog usually spends a little while scoffing the treats, enabling me and my dog to run away in the opposite direction.
You can also try the “My dog has an infectious disease” approach if you feel that the owner has a hope of recalling their dog.
I’ve heard of people using pop-up umbrellas to startle the other dog away, but it’s not something I’ve tried and you will need to remember to teach your dog that the umbrella popping up is not something to be scared of.
Tips for dealing with people approaching your dog
As you see a person approaching, before you even speak to them, quickly back up and call your dog to front and then keep walking backwards as you explain that your dog is frightened of strangers. Feed your dog the whole time you are doing this.
A variation on this is to walk backwards, call your dog back to you and then drop food between your feet. People seem less inclined to approach a dog’s backside to fuss him that they do the head.
You could teach your dog to go behind you as people approach, thus putting yourself between the approaching person and your dog.
I have actually been known to step forward with my arm up whilst saying stop (bit like a policeman directing traffic). That generally shocks people into stopping their approach, which then gives me chance to explain.
One more thing with people is that they are very judgmental and when your dog does bark, lunge or growl, they expect you to tell the dog off (which actually won’t help) and are shocked when you don’t. I’ve found teaching the dog a ‘mock’ reprimand works very well in these situations as folks believe that you’ve told the dog off. A mock reprimand is something like ‘bad dog’ where we have actually taught the dog that these words and a cross tone mean that a reward is coming. It’s a very handy ploy.
For more tips like this and for support for your reactive dog, come and join us in our Top Tips for Reactive Dogs FaceBook group.
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We all get told to do it, but just how do we do it correctly?
What am I talking about? Socialising your puppy of course.
With having a new puppy myself, I’m back to going through this process with my puppy. So let’s take a look at what socialisation is all about. Basically, it means exposing your puppy to everything that it is likely to meet as an adult, so that your puppy isn’t frightened by those things in later life. Sounds all fine so far, and we’ve all seen those checklists where we tick off that our puppy has met x number of people this week and x number of dogs and heard x number of sounds and so on.
Checklists are great as a basic, but they do tend to shift your focus onto completing the checklist rather than the actual process of socialisation and what it means to the puppy. Socialisation is the process of allowing a puppy to become familiar with something, whether that is a person, and object, a sound or another animal. It is a process of habituation (becoming familiar with) and it should be a positive experience (nice things happen) or neutral (nothing pleasant or scary happens). Given a choice, I prefer to make every experience that a pup has, a pleasant one. It sets the pup up for being a well rounded, confident dog that can take a few emotional knock-backs because it has a host of positive experiences to fall back onto.
If we become focused on just ticking the boxes on a checklist, we can forget to make these experiences pleasant or neutral for the pup. What can happen is that a pup is put into a situation and then feels overwhelmed. This is not a positive association for the pup, nor is it neutral; it is a negative (scary) situation for the pup and continual experiences like this will create a pup that doesn’t like certain people, dogs or situations or could even become a nervous dog altogether.
If someone wants to say hello to your puppy, ask them to ask the puppy if it wants to say hello. If the puppy puts its tail done, turns its head away or moves away from that person, then the puppy is quite clearly saying that it doesn’t want to say hello. Respect the puppy’s decision and just ask the person to stand there and leave the pup alone. What you don’t want to do is pick the puppy up and thrust it into that person’s arms as now you have just taught your puppy that you won’t protect it when it is frightened (you are no longer a safe place) and you have just made that person and that experience (other people approaching) a very scary thing. You also don’t want to drag the puppy by the lead to ‘say hello’ or allow the person to keep approaching until the puppy can’t escape and has to submit to being touched. These situations will end up being very scary for the puppy and they can learn quite quickly, to be scared of people (or even a specific type of person, such as men, women, children, babies, etc.) and try to run away or to drive the scary person away by barking and lunging. What we have just done is the direct opposite of socialisation! We actually made people scary!
The same can happen when your puppy meets another dog or puppy. Allow them the chance to decide whether they want to interact or not. There is little point is pushing your pup into interacting with another dog or puppy that is going to be aggressive or bullying with them. A poorly run puppy play session, whether it is at a training class or a dog creche, can do untold damage to your pup and make them worried by other dogs approaching, so that they react by barking and lunging or these play sessions can teach your puppy to be a bully. Neither of these scenarios are good or appropriate socialisation.
Pups do not need to play with every dog they meet or every person they meet in order to become sociable around them. All they need to do is be able to see them and have wonderful things happen whilst dogs, people, vehicles etc. are present. If the puppy wants to approach closer, then fine, but do be guided by your pup’s body language, not by an arbitrary check list that says your puppy MUST meet 10 people this week. Yes to the meet, and be prepared to say no to the interact.
Of course, depending on your pup’s innate personality, it is entirely possible to over-socialise your pup. What do I mean by this? Well, your pup can have so much fun saying hello to other people and dogs that it has little interest in you and all that it wants to do is drag you over to say hello to other dogs and people or it clears off to see them as soon as the lead comes off and has little interest in being with you. You’ve basically become your pup’s social manager and little else. Your puppy needs controlled exposure so that it learns that responding to you is still important and you should most certainly work on teaching your puppy to come away from another dog (not all dogs are friendly) and from people (not everyone likes dogs)
Being able to take your dog anywhere and have your dog continue to do as it is told, is just fabulous and opens up so many opportunities for you and your pup to go on social walks with your dog. Socialisation is something that every pups needs to experience in a positive way. Note that I say it is something that the pup needs to experience; their choice. It is not something that we just expose a pup to, as that it when it is likely to go wrong and we end up turning what was a confident pup into a shrinking violet that finds the World a very scary place.
If you are not too sure that you are reading your pup’s body langauge correctly, then please seek help and advice from a reward based dogs training (avoid anyone that tells you that your pup needs to ‘face up to its fears’). You could also take an online course in Canine Communication.
Have aread of our other article on socialising dogs. Sociable or Socialised?