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
I’ve just had three days at The BFA Flyball Championships. Some very exciting racing and a real adrenaline rush for both dogs and handlers. As I was only racing one dog each day, I had plenty of time to just hang about near my van and relax, so I took the opportunity to work with Mint on getting her to just relax, settle down and chill at the side of me in this busy environment. This got me thinking about teaching our dogs to chillax and just how important it is.
As you can see, Mint relaxed so much, that she actually fell asleep.
Not only does it do us good to be able to just settle and relax in an environment, it does our dogs good as well. Teaching them to settle and relax, also means that we can relax. Just imagine how relaxing it would be to take your dog to a dog friendly pub, and have then just settle down beside you whilst you have a meal and a drink (or two!).
Having a dog that doesn’t switch off can be very tiring and frustrating for the owner, but just imagine what it must be like for the dog to be constantly on the go and to be unable to relax? That’s not good for the dog’s health and welfare and often leads to the owners getting frustrated with a dog that won’t calm down and may mean that the dog gets left at home whilst the owners go for days and evenings out.
So, how do we teach our dogs to relax and settle? A lot does depend on your dog’s personality; you may need to start off training a settle when your dog is already a bit tired or you may be able to train this when the dog is a bit fresher. You can start this off at home or when you are out on a walk. You will need something relaxing for you to do (read a book, check your Facebook, sit and watch the World go by, watch a TV documentary, practice your meditation, anything that will keep you calm and relaxed). If you are off out and about, you will probably need to take something to sit on, unless you know there is a seat in that location.
This is how I did it with Mint at the weekend. sat myself down in my chair with Mint on the lead and a good book and a coffee. Mint was on lead and was allowed to explore the environment. I sat back, took a few deep breathes and tuned myself out from the noise of the flyball going on in the next field. I read my book (The Fitz and The Fool series by Robin Hobb..well worth a read) and just kept my eye on Mint. After a while, she stopped pestering me and just lay down. That was the time that I very quietly, calmly and slowly praised her ‘Goooddddd giirrrllll’, just enough for her to hear me but not enough to excite her into getting back up again. We continued in this manner for a good 40 minutes or more. You can see from the picture above, that she eventually chilled enough to just go to sleep. This is a huge deal for her as she is such an environmentally aware dog and such a stress head at times, which is why I am so keen to teach her to relax and switch off in novel environments.
Here is another picture of Mint settling and relaxing in a training class environment. Another big deal for her as there were other dogs and people present.
Although she hasn’t gone to sleep in this image, you can see from her eyes that she is relaxing and thinking about going to sleep and you can see that her body is relaxed. Her ears tell you that she is still aware of the other dogs and people, but not enough to worry her.
I must admit, it was lovely to just sit and chill with her and I found that I was de-stressing as well (living with a dog like Mint can be very stressful). The biggest benefit for me, was that when Mint was popped back into her crate in the van, she actually laid down quietly (even though the van doors were still wide open and we had vehicles, people and dogs as our close neighbours). This is huge as she’s usually barking at everything around her and sometimes spinning in her crate.
Maybe not the best quality photo, but a milestone for this girlie.
Other ways you can use to encourage your dog to settle at your feet (or near you) is to tether a stuffed Kong to your chair. This prevents the dog from just picking the Kong up and moving off with it and keeps them occupied close to you. I often suggest this for people to use in training classes as it keeps their dog occupied whilst others are being worked. See my Facebook page Get Stuffed for some ideas of frozen Kong recipes.
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I love clicker training. I love the way the dog (or other animal) is a willing participant in the learning process. I love how fast the learning process can be and how much fun can be had.
Unfortunately, some people dismiss clicker training because they think we are just a bunch of hippies that try to ignore bad behaviour and just passively wait for the dog to offer good behavior before we reward. Whilst I am sure that some trainers attempt to use this ineffective approach, a good trainer (regardless of what tools they prefer to use), will adopt a proactive approach to solving unwanted behaviour (so-called bad behaviour).
So how do we clicker trainers and other positive trainers deal with unwanted behaviour? Well management is high on our agenda and ignoring behaviour should be fairly low down: depending of course, on what the unwanted behaviour is. If my dog ignores a sit cue, I’m probably going to be fairly chilled about it all and not stress. If it ignores a recall cue, I may get a bit worried if the dog is clearing off to chase rabbits, other dogs or just going over to bug other people and dogs…..that one would mean that I’d have to go and put some work in on proofing my recall around distractions and making sure that I pay the dog a decent wage for ignoring those distractions and heading back to me. Management would involve a long line clipped onto a harness.
So what if my dog is jumping up people. Am I going to ignore that behaviour and wait until the dog decides it is going to do something else? Absolutely not! everytime the dog jumps up someone, it is getting rewarded, so the behaviour is going to increase and not go away by being ignored. What I need to do, is reward the dog for doing something else; something that it can’t do at the same time as jumping up. Sit is an excellent one to pick (as you can’t jump up whilst you are sat) as is keeping four paws on the floor. So again we’d manage the situation by keeping the dog on a lead and then rewarding the dog for either sitting or keeping its feet on the floor when people are about, and then as people approach and then when people come over and say hello to the dog.
What about a dog showing aggression? Am I going to ignore that behaviour and wait for the dog to do something else? No! This needs addressing. Again management will come in to protect whatever the dog’s target is; so lead, muzzle (once the dog has been trained to accept one) and then work is needed on treating the emotional component of the aggression (if it is ear based), on treating the pain (if the aggression is medically related) and then desensitising the dog to its triggers. How to deal with this, would need several blog posts, but do look out for our TRUST programme. Also see our blog post on Muzzle types to ensure that you choose the correct type.
What about barking? Am I going to ignore that? Generally, no I won’t, although it does depend on where and when it occurs. I probably won’t try to stop my dogs barking when they first go on the beach for a run, but I will stop them barking in the house, when someone comes to the door and barking at me to get me to throw a toy. barking does tend to be a rewarding thing to do (makes the dog feel good inside), so ignoring it isn’t really going to make it go away. We need to be proactive and teach the dogs what quiet means.
Dogs can’t bark and sniff (bit like we can’t talk and sniff…try it!), so if your dog starts barking, pop a tasty treat on their nose, they will sniff (and go quiet), then say quiet, count to 5 and then reward. You have just rewarded your dog for 5 seconds of being quiet. You can build on this and gradually increase the duration of the quiet behaviour.
For dogs that bark when people come to the door, then I really like Kikopup’s approach of using a positive interrupter to interrupt the barking so that you can then reward the quiet behaviour. Works even if you have multiple dogs.
For dogs that are getting over excited and barking because they want to play with that toy now! I’d be wanting to work on their self-control (impulse control). I play a series of games to help to teach the dog to stay calm and focused, no matter how exciting the game or the environment. These games now form part of my successful EPIC self control and focus course
We’ll have a look at other so-called problem behaviours in another post in the future. Have a think about the behaviours that your dog does that are maybe not appropriate and see if you can think of a proactive approach to teaching your dog to do something else instead.
If you’d like to do more about why dogs bark and the other ways in which dogs communicate, then join us on our online Canine Communication course
So you’ve got a springer or cocker and all you see is it running into the distance with its nose down. Or your retriever meets you at the door with your slippers in its mouth. Welcome to the World governed by genetics; your dog is just doing what it was bred to do.
Spaniels are bred to hunt and flush game by running about in cover and following the scent of the birds and flushing them out. It is hard-wired into spaniels, especially the working bred ones. Ideally, they shouldn’t work far from you, but many owners don’t know how to channel the dog’s desire to hunt and they can end up with spaniels that end up several fields away!
Retrievers are bred to fetch shot game back; they have an inbuilt desire (read need) to bring you a ‘pheasant’ when they see you. They don’t care whether that pheasant is actually your slippers or a pair of knickers; they are genetically programmed to do this.
Pointers and setters are bred to range long distances and to work with little direction from their handler. They have been bred to be independent breeds; which can make them difficult to recall (note I say difficult, not impossible). Again, this is down to their genetic make-up.
When owning a gundog breed, it is important to consider what job the breed was originally bred to do as they will have a strong desire, a need to carry out that behaviour to fulfil their inner child (their emotional needs) and if allowed to go ‘self-employed’ these breeds will respond to these needs and go off hunting or looking for a pheasant to bring you.
So how can we control these instincts? Note I say control rather than stop. It is almost impossible to stop pre-programmed behaviour, but we can channel it so that the dog works with us rather than against us.
Nosework games such as tossing treats or hiding a toy for the spaniel to hunt out will enrich their lives and teach them to stay close as well as helping with recall and check-ins. Teaching a stop to whistle (or verbal cue) can help when they are triggered to chase (flush) something. The more interaction between you and the dog on a walk, the more likely the dog is to stay close by and keep an eye on you. Building a desire to retrieve whilst they are young can help a lot as it gives you another tool to use to interact with/train your dog with (but exclusively using a ball chucker to exercise your dog in a walk is likely to cause other issues). So I will use a ball to reward a stop or a fast recall as my springer is ball mad…..if I don’t interact with her, she would be fields away busy hunting as that is what her brain is telling her to do.
Retrievers also like retrieve games and nosework games but are generally more likely to want to stay near you. To satisfy that need to bring you a pheasant, give them something to carry. If you don;t want them fetching you your slippers, TV remote or knickers; then teach them to fetch a specific toy that they can then greet you with. Fetching you something makes them feel good as well as satisfying that internal need, so we need to make sure that what they fetch is something that we don’t mind them bringing to us or our guests.
Recalls need to have meaningful rewards and this doesn’t just mean tasty treats, it means duration of reward and its relevance to the dog at that time. So when the dog comes back when called, don’t just give it one large treat as the chances are that will teach the dog to come back, snatch a treat and then run off again. You are better to divide that treat into 10 smaller one and deliver them one after the other whilst walking backwards. The movement increases the dog’s engagement with you and the duration of the reward reinforces ‘hanging about’ with you rather than the grab and run approach that one treat can encourage.
Other things that I will do out on walks are:
- Rewarding check ins
- Multiple recalls
- Stops either going away from me or towards me
- Recall and stay near me until released to run and hunt again
- Directional work (sending the dog left right and back)
- Loose lead walking
- Short stays either next to me or whilst I walk away and recall
- Various retrieve games
- Various search games
- Impulse control games
Join us for our Goody Goody Gundog workshops for ideas to challenge your gundog.
You may also find our E.P.I.C. Self Control and Focus workshops useful. You can study online here
Other posts you may find helpful
Self-control or Impulse control is my ‘thing’, I spend a lot of time teaching people games to play with their dog to improve their dog’s self control and because I end up with the problem dogs, I’ve usually got several dogs that are ‘work in progress’ with regards to self-control and other issues. With the established pack, I usually have a pretty good idea when they are going to get a bit OTT and have issues with their impulse control, but just sometimes, they catch me out.
Take Mr T, always a bit wild on the beach and gets very ‘shouty’, so we do some work there before they are all allowed to hooli about. He can get a bit OTT at flyball (as expected really as it is a high adrenaline sport) and recently, he has become a bit reluctant to release his tuggy, so back to working on that and getting a bit more self-control. However, at a recent gundog training workshop, the wild child really was released. We got to do some retrieves using a dummy launcher; and that was the most exciting thing ever; he couldn’t sit, couldn’t stay quiet, all he wanted was that retrieve. It was all so much more exciting than flyball which did surprise me a bit.
So why did it all go wrong? The quacking noise that the dummy launcher made and the excitement generated by the gunshot and the dummies flying high in the sky was all a bit much for his current stage of training. I should have taken him further away and reinforced calmness and then gradually brought him closer and closer, rewarding calmness before letting him have that explosive retrieve. But I didn’t, he got several retrieves.
I did learn that despite his excitement levels, he could mark the dummy and do a cracking retrieve to hand without mouthing or trying to play tug with the dummy (something that we had struggled with previously, as he would either drop the dummy short or try to play tug with it), he could also memorise where a dummy had fallen and go out and retrieve it cleanly even if the previous dog had missed it. So despite his high arousal levels, he was still capable of having a soft mouth and of thinking and remembering work that we had previously done in a calmer environment. As soon as we had finished playing with the dummy launcher, he did calm down very quickly.
So, although we had a bit of a blip, and I have more work to do, I’m confident that the games we are playing at various arousal levels is starting to be generalised to other situations. I will admit that Mr T has taken a back seat since Mint arrived and this episode has reminded me that I do need to keep playing that games with him to maintain and develop his impulse control.
Self-control/impulse control can be taught to a dog. Some breeds are genetically wired to be impulsive (spaniels spring to mind as well as working line Malinois and terriers) and other breeds are genetically wired to be less impulsive (many retrievers, many hound breeds, some of the large heavy breeds). The impulsive breeds can be taught to control their impulses and this is best taught allowing the dog freedom of choice rather than trying to impose it. So a dog choosing to sit before it is allowed to carry out an action is always going to learn to control its impulses better than one that is told to wait or stay before being allowed to carry out that desired behavior. Both methods will bring about results, but the dog that is allowed to make choices will learn much better and generalise better than the one that has self-control imposed on it by the handler. And yes, you can train impulsive dogs to settle calmly at home whilst you are working; they don’ need to be bouncing off the walls all the time.
We also need to teach behaviors when the dog is in various states or arousal as behaviours taught when the dog is calm will be forgotten when the dog is aroused (much as happens with us).
To learn more about self-control/impulse-control check out our EPIC courses and also our on-line self-control course, both of which are full of exercises to teach your dogs self-control/impulse control.
Back to training the ‘wild child’ that is Mr T 🙂