Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Teach a Dog to Come When Called

Probably the hardest cue for dog owners to train is the recall, or to come when called. Even a prolonged 'stay' isn't as hard to achieve as this holy grail of dog training behaviors. So, why is it so hard for us to teach our dogs to come to us?

Think in terms of reinforcement. What things are you, the dog owner, doing to reinforce your dog's behavior? Keep in mind reinforcement can work many ways, so the subtraction of something fun can reinforce, as well as the addition of something not so fun. Remember: it's not about what you, the dog trainer, thinks is reinforcing; it's what your dog actually perceives HOW she's being reinforced for WHAT she did that matters – especially when training the recall.

We're Actually Teaching Our Dogs NOT to Come
That's right, the majority of the time dog owners are most likely teaching their dogs NOT to come when called.

Take this scenario: dog owner takes dog to dog park. Upon entering dog park, the restricting leash is removed and Fido is allowed to run free, socialize, smell, chase...all the things a dog loves to do. It's a bit of doggy paradise. Then dog owner decides it's time to go home. Owner begins calling for dog to "come" and –  normally – the recall probably occurs multiple times. Even if the dog knows explicitly what that cue means (most don't), what dog wants to head over to the owner, get the leash snapped on and be led AWAY from doggy heaven? Not many.

Other scenarios in which dog owners 'abuse' the come cue: calling the dog over to get a bath, to go to the vet, to get punished (you know who you are – the dog's doing something he's not supposed to, so you call him over and tell him he's a bad dog for doing whatever behavior you made him come over for), etc.

Teaching Your Dog to Come
Whether you get your dog as an 8-week-old pup or an adult, training him to 'come' to you on cue is an extremely important behavior which must be initiated immediately. No pup is too young nor any dog too old to 'learn new tricks,' so to speak. Any trainer who says puppies younger than 6 months can't learn have no clue what they're talking about: if a dog is old enough to see and walk, you can start training simple behaviors.

Keep in mind you need to train recall behavior – as any other – with a fun attitude, and the dog's 'paycheck' needs to be more rewarding than anything else going on at that moment. In fact, it's best to utilize the dog's absolute favorite reinforcer when training this behavior; best case scenario means only giving out that special treat when the dog comes to you.

To begin, set your dog – and yourself – up for success by attempting recall in a small, confined area. Inside the house would be great, since normally dogs are less tempted to go sniffing/chasing when inside the house. After your dog has mastered an acceptable level of 'come' – by your standards – throughout the house, you can move on to the outdoors, again in a controlled area. A dog trainer must always progress any training exercise in levels which set the dog up for success. Be careful not to put a word to the 'come' behavior too soon in the training process. Barking commands at a dog isn't going to work if the dog isn't aware of what the word means. First attain the behavior; once it's occurring consistently, then you can add a word as a cue.

But How Do I Train the Recall?
There are many ways to train your dog to come – as always, it first depends on what motivates your dog. As an example, I have a high chase-drive dog – a working-line German Shepherd – so I actually worked with her on recalls while playing fetch. She loves chasing and retrieving sticks (I began teaching her fetch immediately when I got her at 4 months of age) and she was consistent in bringing it back. So, as soon as she started heading back towards me on a retrieve, I'd clap excitedly. When she came and dropped the stick at my feet, of course I'd throw it again. Now, when I take her for a walk she can be off leash and every time I clap*, she comes running! She of course associates the hand-clapping with fetch/play/fun, so it's become a recall cue for me.

I also worked on training the same behavior – recall – with a whistle as a cue. Keep in mind you can have multiple cues for the same behavior; what you should never do is attempt to train multiple behaviors off of the same cue. I personally don't use the word "Come" as my cue because a hand-clap or whistle carries farther than my voice.

Important Concept to Remember When Training: Dogs Don't Generalize
A big mistake many dog owners make is believing their dogs come when called 100% of the time, and will do it anywhere, yet they've only practiced with their dog inside the yard. Then they head to the dog park and are completely baffled as to why the dog won't recall. At this point, the dog not only isn't used to performing the behavior amidst distractions, she's mostly trained to perform 'come' only in a certain place.

If you only work with the recall cue when your dog is in the yard, how will he know that 'come' doesn't mean "come to me here in this yard where there's a fence and not many other places to go"? You must work on training the 'come' cue with your dog in MANY different areas and situations. This guarantees 2 things:

  • your dog knows that 'come' means to come directly every time, in any place, and immediately;
  • the dog knows it must recall amidst any number of distractions.

Also, be sure never, EVER to ask the dog to 'come' when you think she might not. Sounds counter-intuitive, doesn't it? By this I mean if you're not ready to lay down a $100 bill on the table as a bet your dog will immediately come when you call her, don't call. If you call her and she ignores you, and/or if you have to repeat the cue several times before she does come (which isn't recommended), you're actually teaching her not to come when called. The way around this is to train it correctly – at first, marking the correct behavior and rewarding the dog for every occurrence; as the dog starts to understand what's required of her, then you start reinforcing only the strongest/fastest/best recalls; eventually the dog will only be reinforced intermittently; finally the dog performs the behavior on cue.

Remember, When Training Recalls:
The main points to remember when teaching a dog to come are:
  • understand what motivates your dog; 
  • train at incremental levels which set the dog (and you!) up for success;
  • be consistent;
  • don't put a word (also known as a cue or command) to a behavior until the dog is offering it consistently and then properly associate that word with the desired behavior;
  • be patient and have fun!

*Keep in mind I taught recall with a dog who already retrieved 100% consistently; also I did it over and over in multiple places, situations, etc. Training a dog to come when called doesn't happen overnight.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Dog Training: Tracking Objects

Dogs with high chase drive (also known as "prey drive" or "ball drive") can actually be very easy to train. K-9 police dogs are trained not with treats for reinforcement, but with special toys or games because they're so motivated to chase.

My American-bred, European-line German shepherd is no K-9, but she does have an excellent nose, a proclivity for tracking and a high chase drive. For exercise, mental stimulation and to work on her "tracking" skills, I often play fetch while making her hunt for her stick after I throw it.

While I merely use this as a simple exercise or training regimen, this aptitude can be used to train dogs to hone their tracking skills in order to sniff out various objects.

To use this method for training purposes, it's imperative to have a dog who's extremely motivated by chasing/tracking. As you can see, although Zada's tongue is hanging out, she's very intent upon her search for the stick. There have only been a handful of times in her 3 years when she has failed to bring back a stick I've thrown (whether in the woods or tall grass; harder to find than this evenly-mowed area). These times have occurred when she's extremely tired and therefore not as focused.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Free Shaping in Training Dogs

What is Shaping?
'Shaping' is creating a behavior by reinforcing an animal for incremental steps which eventually 'shape' into the end goal. While it doesn't sound so hard, the catch is this: the entire premise of the method is based on the initiative of the animal; not the trainer. In other words, it's a patience game since you're waiting for the spontaneous actions of the dog.

Timing and consistency are critical in any type of training, but when using free shaping, the trainer's timing needs to be impeccable, since the full extent of the desired behavior probably won't happen right away. More than likely it needs to be built upon in small increments. In fact, you might have to start at a very basic level.

For example, let's say you want to teach your dog to bow. You might be waiting a LONG time before the dog offers that exact behavior, so instead you might have to start by reinforcing the dog when she merely looks at the ground. *click* Once the dog's consistently looking at the ground, you don't pay on the next occurrence. If it's truly a consistent behavior, the dog will go through an extinction burst - she'll try harder at the behavior because it's paid in the past - and might dip her head lower to the ground instead of merely looking down. *click* Once that's consistent, you stop paying and the dog will try harder. Then maybe the dog dips a shoulder - *click* and so on.

Many trainers don't have the patience for true free shaping, but it's a fun way for your dog to be not only learning but initiating new behaviors. Another great way to teach a dog to be more creative – thus offering a trainer more behaviors – is to play the 101 Things To Do With a Box game.

Now, some trainers might understand shaping is a powerful training tool but don't have the patience or length of time to wait for the dog to offer spontaneous behaviors. In many cases, trainers will resort to using a lure to get the dog to perform the behavior instead. While you can certainly train a dog this way, luring isn't free shaping, rather, just 'shaping.' What happens with luring is the dog relies on the lure to 'tell' him what to do. If you decide to use luring when training new behaviors, it's important to properly phase out the lure so the dog learns not to depend on help all the time to perform the behavior. This type of training can definitely work, but free shaping creates a much more creative dog who will try things on his own, versus having to always be lured into new behaviors.

Why Use a Clicker in Free Shaping?
Clicker training is basically a junk term for marker-based training. Marking a behavior with a sound is an extremely effective method of teaching new behaviors because the subject - be it dog, dolphin, rat, human - knows the exact moment when he performs a desired behavior. Also, by introducing a (previously) neutral sound into the training process the subject learns to work for the SOUND; not the reward. This is important, since a common complaint of dog owners is, "my dog only does tricks when I have a bunch of treats in my hand!" These people don't understand clicker training or the principles behind operant conditioning.

If a marker sound isn't utilized in free shaping, the dog won't learn very quickly. Why? Because he won't know if the desired behavior occurred when the trainer gave the treat, just before the treat was thrown, etc. With a clear, short marker at the instant the behavior is offered, the dog will understand instantly what he did correctly. Of course, before starting to free shape, the trainer must be sure the dog understands the clicker's meaning. This can be done by charging the clicker before beginning training.

Why can't I just use a short word instead of a clicker?
Often trainers will resort to a short, upbeat word – such as "Yes!" or "Good!" – instead of a clicker. This can work when free shaping, but it's best to use a clicker, since it's a consistent sound; there is no voice inflection, no volume change. That being said, it's great to have a dog accustomed to the sounds of both the clicker and the trainer's voice, since there will be times when you've forgotten your clicker or weren't planning on a training session. However, studies have shown there is a much quicker learning time when using a clicker vs. a voice as a marker.

With some practice, patience and good timing, you can teach your dog anything with free shaping – including teaching a dog fun tricks. After all, how else do zoo trainers achieve desired behaviors with elephants, birds, dolphins, etc?

Reinforcement & Punishment in Operant Conditioning

In this article I'm discussing reinforcement and punishment as it relates to the training method of operant conditioning. To achieve a dog which willingly wants to work with the trainer, we tend to think only 'positive' methods work the best, but keep in mind when dealing with this type of training positive means the addition of a stimulus; negative stands for the subtraction of a stimulus.

In regards to the tools available in operant conditioning, there can be a total of four contexts:

  • Positive Reinforcement is the addition of a favorable stimulus after a desired behavior has occurred. E.g., a treat or toy is presented for good behavior.

  • Negative Reinforcement is the subtraction of an undesirable stimulus after desired behavior has occurred. E.g., a dog on leash acts calmly - or displays some other form of obedience - and the owner takes the leash off. A leash itself is a negative reinforcer since it keeps the dog from moving freely where he wants to go.

  • Positive Punishment is the addition of an undesirable stimulus at the onset of undesirable behavior. E.g., a shock collar or electric fence.

  • Negative Punishment is the removal of a desired stimulus after undesirable behavior has occurred. E.g., a family friend comes to visit and upon entering the house begins petting the dog, but the dog becomes too excited so the friend ceases giving attention to the dog until she settles.
While the most 'upbeat' form discussed here is positive reinforcement, the other methods have their place, too. The only form of training I don't condone is positive punishment. It's a "quick fix" which actually teaches a dog to become fearful and untrusting, since he's not sure when he'll get shocked, hit or yelled at next. Instead of focusing on what a dog is doing "wrong," why not work with him to encourage what he's doing right?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Motivation & Positive Reinforcement while Training

An example of using positive reinforcement when training my German shepherd. Since she's obsessed with fetching sticks, I use the act of retrieving the stick as reinforcement for performing cues. Of course, she already knows the 'down' cue, in order to teach her something I'd obviously work in small increments.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Premack’s Principle

What is the Premack Principle, Anyway?
If you’re at all interested in behavior modification, you’ve heard of David Premack. He is a psychologist who came up with the relationship between desirable and undesirable behaviors.

Desirable – or high probability – behaviors are those behaviors which the animal wishes to do when given the choice. Undesirable – or low probability – behaviors are those behaviors which, given the choice, the animal seldom, if ever, does.

Premack’s Principle states an animal will perform an undesired behavior in order to engage in a desirable behavior. When a high probability behavior is contingent upon the performance of a low probability behavior, the outcome is the increased frequency of the low probability behavior.

While this might sound hard to enforce, consider the mother who tells her child, “you aren’t allowed to go outside and play until you clean your room.” Cleaning her room is not a preferred behavior for the child, yet since she is extremely motivated to play outside, she will perform the low probability behavior for her “reward”: the high probability, or preferred, behavior.

Training Dogs Using Premack’s Theory
In relation to dog training, Premack’s Principle tells us we can use our dog’s most desired activities as reinforcers for good behavior in operant conditioning. Often, trainers will become frustrated when their dogs lose interest during a training session because they’d rather sniff the floor, play with another dog, chew their favorite toy, etc.

That’s okay! You can use these tendencies to achieve the behavior you want. For example, if your dog would rather fetch a ball, you can use it as a reinforcer during training. If you’re working on “sit” with your dog, wait until she sits, then release her as you’re throwing the ball. Of course, this works best with dogs who are so motivated to play fetch they always bring the ball (or stick, favorite toy, etc.) back to you every time! Mostly, with dogs that enjoy this activity, they understand the principle: I chase the ball, bring it back and the human throws it so I can chase it again!

Or, if your dog would rather sniff around than receive some other form of treat during a training session, wait until your dog performs the behavior you wish, and then let him sniff as his reward! After a few seconds of sniff-time, calmly say “let’s go,” or get your dog’s attention back on you and start over.

I know a dog trainer who used her male dog's extreme desire to mark everything as reinforcement. She taught him to heel at perfect attention merely by waiting for him to perform desired behavior and then rewarding him with allowing him to scent mark. VoilĂ ! Premack's Principle at work.

Premack theory works hand in hand with intermittent reinforcement, allowing you to wean your dog away from “treats” as rewards. Not only that, it allows you to utilize your everyday environment to train your dog. An important thing to always keep in mind is "what motivates my dog the most right now?" If the Premack Principle is used correctly, you’ll quickly have a dog which is always looking for ways to “have fun” by offering you obedient behavior!

Arguments Against “Clicker Training”

Unfortunately, most clicker trainers teach their students to treat their dog each and every time a behavior occurs, or they don’t properly outline how to reinforce intermittently, thus moving away from reinforcing each occurrence. This is the biggest argument against clicker training: people don’t want a dog dependent on receiving treats in order to be obedient. Tied in with that argument is a trainer who doesn’t want to "carry treats around" all the time. They’ll argue, “why does the dog needs a treat every time?”

When trainers use operant conditioning – in which clicker training is based – they not only wean their dogs off of “treats” by using intermittent reinforcement, they also substitute other forms of reinforcers. This means you don’t have to – and actually shouldn’t – carry treats or toys with you wherever you and your dog go.

Another argument against clicker training: the dog’s behavior is dependent on the presence – or absence – of treats. While it’s hard to use much other than dog treats in an actual dog class setting, many clicker trainers fail to teach their students the many types of positive reinforcers, and how to use these other forms of motivation to modify dog behavior outside of the classroom. Also, done correctly, operant conditioning does the opposite of training the dog to only work when "treats" are present!

For example, simply telling your dog “Good dog!” can be reinforcement. Whether or not it's a strong enough reinforcement for your dog depends on if you've correctly conditioned the dog. Also, behaviors themselves can be reinforcing. According to Premack’s Principle, a dog will perform a less desirable behavior in order to be able to perform the more desirable behavior. The dog who is excited to enter the dog park, for instance, must sit calmly and look her trainer in the eyes in order to be able to advance into the park. Although the dog is extremely motivated to play with other dogs, she knows she must offer the obedient behavior (sitting with attention) in order to “earn” the “treat” of entering the dog park.

This is not to say that a trainer shouldn’t use clicker training! Rather, when researching trainers and dog classes to begin on your positive reinforcement journey, be sure to do your homework and find a reputable establishment which utilizes operant conditioning methods correctly. This means you probably should not attend the PetCo/PetSmart dog classes, since the majority of the time these trainers don’t utilize clicker training methods properly.

Intermittent Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement (a common slang term for operant conditioning) is the basis of clicker training. Unfortunately, not all clicker trainers understand the use of reinforcers, namely, when to give them to the dog and when NOT to give them.

Reinforcement Examples
First of all, the trainer needs to evaluate the dog to find out what most motivates him. While dog treats are the most commonly used reinforcer, not all dogs respond the same way to treats. Often dogs won’t respond as well to commercial dog treats as actual meat, so be sure to try various types of food: roast beef, cooked hamburger, hot dogs, salmon, etc.

Of course, the dog might not be as interested in food as she is in playing – fetch or tug-of-war, for example. Anything the dog will work hard for is a reinforcer, and can be used in training to modify behavior. There are many motivators in a dog's life, and all dogs are different, so it's best to evaluate each dog for a list of reinforcers.

Once you’ve conditioned the dog to the meaning of the clicker (by pairing the "click" with a "treat"), you can begin modifying his behavior. The whole premise of clicker training is to create a dog who offers behaviors to the trainer, rather than being forced into them – the dog is the one who is “empowered” to make decisions and wants to work with his human.

Intermittent Reinforcement: Reinforcing Only the Best Behaviors
In order to train correctly and have an obedient dog, a trainer must utilize reinforcement correctly. When the dog is first learning a behavior – “sit,” for example – every instance of the correct behavior (the dog sits down completely) is “treated,” no matter how slowly or sloppily she does it. However, after the behavior is consistently occurring, the trainer needs to be sure only to reinforce the top 80% of the behavior. I.e., those times the dog best completes the behavior, and quickly.

It's also important to note that dog trainers should only work on one behavior at a time. If you're working with your dog on "sit," then work only on that cue for a session. Take a break before moving onto any other cues. This speeds the learning process for the dog.

What Does Constant Reinforcement Actually Teach?
By reinforcing your dog for only her best performances ensures the dog learns HOW you want the behavior; not just that you want any form of it. Dogs which are constantly treated for a behavior actually don’t learn to perform the behavior well. In fact, these dogs for the most part don’t even offer the behavior fully or consistently. For example, with a “sit,” the dog might only crouch down so her haunches are near the ground; not on them. With a “down” cue the dog’s elbows might not even touch the ground. Even if the dog downs correctly, she might take her time doing it.

Why does the dog not perform the cue consistently or to the full completion? Because the dog gets paid every single time the behavior occurs, regardless of the precision or timing. (In real-life terms, think of someone who rides the bus to work. Whether they get there early, on-time, late, the bus waits for them and takes them where they need to go. There's no motivation for getting to the bus-stop on time because the person knows the bus will still be there. If, however, the bus kept its schedule this person would begin arriving on time to get a ride.)

By reinforcing only the dog’s best behaviors, you’re telling the dog, “if you don’t work hard enough, you don’t get paid.” Because you’ve done your research and know which reinforcers your dog finds most appealing, the dog WILL work harder if he doesn’t get paid for something. After the dog is consistently giving you his best behavior, then you begin decreasing the reinforcement – or intermittently reinforcing – for the behavior. There shouldn’t be a schedule to the reinforcement, that is, the dog shouldn’t know that every 3rd or 5th occurrence of the behavior earns him a “treat.”

Because the dog never knows when he's going to be reinforced, he'll consistently offer the correct behavior. This is where many clicker trainers fail to understand the true significance of operant conditioning. They don't understand how to get the behavior happening consistently, then move from consistent reinforcement to intermittent by only rewarding the dog's best behaviors, and they also don't understand the true meaning of reinforcers.

There are many trainers who disregard clicker training because of this very misunderstanding of the true nature of the training methods.

Positive Reinforcement

Choosing a Positive Reinforcer
When using operant conditioning or clicker training with dogs, the trainer first needs to evaluate the dog to find out what he wants most. Anything a dog will work to achieve can be considered a reinforcer. Two things to keep in mind: reinforcers are different for each dog; what WE as trainers think of as 'rewards' for the dog might not be reinforcers*. What motivates one dog might not be important to another. Some dogs are extremely motivated by food, while others prefer play and toys; some dogs merely want attention from their trainer. There are many different types of reinforcement; you must choose the one which is best for your dog.

Main Types of Reinforcement for Dogs
Food: When you’re working with a food-motivated dog, it’s best to ensure you’re using food which the dog cannot resist. While you can certainly train the dog at feeding time – thus using the dog’s actual meal for reinforcement – this won’t have as strong an effect at any other time.

Use the smallest piece of food your dog will work towards; be sure to have soft, quickly-chewable pieces versus big, crunchy treats. The quicker the dog can consume the treat, the quicker he’ll turn his attention back to you instead of taking his time hunting around for the crumbs of the one you just gave him.

If your dog doesn’t seem interested in commercial dog treats, you can try cooked meat, such as hamburger, roast beef, etc. Don’t worry about the dog beginning to beg for “human” food, since the only time this food is used is when training. A dog learns to beg for food only when this behavior is reinforced!

Within the food category, you'll find your dog will have favorites that he'll work for no matter what - whether he's just eaten or he's chewing on a favorite toy, etc - these are your "high-reward" reinforcers, and should be utilized when you're training for very important cues. An example would be the recall, or "come!" cue. Many dog trainers believe this to be one of the most important cues to teach a dog; if it is for you, then you should reward the behavior with an extremely high "paycheck"!

Play/Toys: Many highly energetic, prey-drive dogs actually prefer this method of reinforcement over treats. This can be anything from the dog’s favorite toy to playing tug-of-war, fetch, or any other game the dog loves to play. The trick here is to keep the play sessions very short – no more than 30 seconds – so you leave the dog wanting more. Also, it keeps both of you on task. Again, keep in mind that certain games or toys will motivate your dog more than others.

Attention/Touch: Some dogs crave attention over anything else and a trainer can certainly use this as reinforcement. Petting, scratching, or any other form of attention the dog loves can be used as reinforcers. Again, the key is to keep these sessions short when using them for training. Also, it's good to know in which places your dog really likes to be scratched or petted, versus the places where it's just simple enjoyment. For example, a dog might like getting her belly rubbed, but she absolutely loves having her ears scratched. Keep these things in mind when you're reinforcing for behaviors...the bigger the "duty," the bigger the reinforcement should be.

Similar to petting or scratching, some dogs will work for merely a “Good dog!” or other form of verbal praise. When clicker training or using any other form of positive reinforcement training, it’s important to understand eventually the trainer needs to move away from “treating” the dog every time – this is called intermittent reinforcement – and instead move towards more verbal praise with intermittent reinforcers (such as praise, play, food, etc.).

Territory: Last, but certainly not least, is the use of space as a reinforcer for your dog. Let's look at an example to explain this: think of the puppy who constantly pulls on the leash to get somewhere else. A good dog trainer can actually use this behavior to his/her advantage in order to form new behaviors. Standing quietly and calmly, the trainer waits until the split second in which the pup lets some slack creep into the leash - CLICK! - and reinforce this non-pulling behavior. After a few repetitions of receiving payment for not pulling, the puppy will figure out "if I don't pull, I get rewarded!" While you'd want to start in small enough increments - and with the least amount of distraction - in order to give your puppy a chance to succeed, using space and territory within operant conditioning will work if the trainer is consistent and has good timing.

Reinforcers Are NOT Created Equal
Another important note to make is that not all reinforcers hold the same motivational factor all the time for a dog. For example, if a dog is highly food motivated but has just eaten, she probably won’t work as hard to obtain food – even if it’s her favorite treat you’re using. Also, motivation to work for reinforcement can be affected by the presence of another reinforcer. A dog who will work for both food and play will default to one or the other when both are present. A dog with high prey-drive, for example, will often ignore food in preference of their favorite game.

No matter which reinforcers work best for your dog, keep in mind the proper way to train – to get the best, longest-lasting results – is not to treat for every single behavior all the time. Even when using intermittent reinforcement, you don’t want your dog to know there’s any type of schedule to the reinforcement.

Last, a trainer should always be thinking outside the dog training box. The aforementioned “popular” methods of positive reinforcement are effective, but don’t forget the Premack Principle – situations and the environment can be used as reinforcers, too!

*Think of a 'reinforcer' as something the DOG wishes to obtain/is motivated to work for, while a 'reward' is what the TRAINER thinks the dog wants. Seems confusing, doesn't it? If a trainer has done her homework, she knows the reinforcers her dog most enjoys, and when to use them, while a trainer who hasn't evaluated the dog's motivational factors will think "my dog will work for these" when in fact, the dog might not want to!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Clicker Training Dogs

The past 10 years or so has seen a dramatic increase in a method of dog training called clicker training. "Clicker training" is actually jargon for the lesser-known scientific terminology, operant conditioning. While the concept certainly isn't new - it was developed under B.F. Skinner's tutelage as early as World War II - it seems to have swept the dog training world as a highly effective training method to achieve long-term effects.

Operant Conditioning
In operant conditioning, consequences are used to modify the frequency of behaviors. Generally speaking, animals will continue performing a behavior which results in a “positive” outcome, and discontinue behaviors which result in either no consequence or a “negative” outcome. In this article, "positive" and "negative" refer to the emotional connotation. In clicker training, trainers use positive reinforcement (the addition of a reinforcer) to get the dog to repeat desired behaviors as well as decrease undesired behaviors.

In order to get the dog repeating a behavior, she must know exactly which behavior earned the reinforcement. Through the use of a clicker, the trainer can “tell” the dog the instant a desired behavior occurs (this is called marking the behavior). This tool is used because of its sharp, quick sound – the click – which is much more precise than the trainer’s voice. It takes a lot longer to say “Good boy!” than it does to simply click. Once the dog understands the clicker signifies she’s done something good, the trainer can begin shaping behaviors.

Conditioning a Dog to the Clicker
The first step in beginning this training is conditioning the dog to the meaning of the clicker. To start, the trainer must find a motivator for the dog – something this specific dog greatly wants. The most popular form of reinforcement is food in the form of dog treats since all dogs, at some point, are food motivated. If your dog isn’t particularly interested in treats, there are many different positive reinforcers you can use. The important thing is to find what motivates your dog at that moment.

With the dog on leash or in a small space (in order to minimize distractions and the dog’s ability to leave), the trainer clicks the clicker, pauses, then “treats” the dog, regardless of what he's doing. This step is repeated several times in a row in order to form the association between the clicker and the positive reinforcement. At this point, the dog is simply learning that after he hears a click, he will receive a reward.

Getting Started Clicker Training
Once the association between clicker and positive reinforcement is made, you can get started with the actual training. At this point, the dog knows that she needs to hear a click in order to receive the reinforcement. Since she's still very new at this, start with something simple so she can succeed. You can begin with waiting until the dog looks away, and when she turns back and makes eye contact (as she eventually will), click, pause and then treat her. Repeat this step - dog looks away; dog makes eye contact, CLICK, pause, treat - until the dog is consistently looking at you. This teaches eye contact and attention but also ensures the dog learns the ultimate goal is NOT the treat; rather, working for the click itself.

When the dog is consistently making eye contact, start lengthening the amount of time he needs to hold your gaze before clicking. Count to 2 seconds, the next time wait 5 seconds, etc. This teaches the dog he needs to HOLD eye contact. Whatever you've read or heard on the Dog Whisperer about humans needing to "win the staring contest" doesn't apply here. Wouldn't you rather have a dog eagerly looking into your eyes for the next cue, rather than a dog who is afraid to hold eye contact?

Leave Your Dog Wanting More Training
For every training session, it’s best to leave the dog wanting more, rather than working with the dog until she gets bored with the training. In the beginning, 5-minute sessions are best. Work with the dog, then give a “release” word and take a break to pet or scratch the dog. When you’re ready to start back in, merely stand still and wait until the dog makes eye contact again, or you can call the dog’s name to get her attention. When you're done with the training session, make sure to end on a positive note.

Remember, this is a game and should be treated as such – it’s fun but you and your dog are learning at the same time!

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