Positive Reinforcement Training Tips and Exercises
1. Introduction: Make training stick with a “click!”
You may have seen the little device that is changing the way owners view dog training. The clicker- a small box with a metal disk that makes a distinguishable loud noise- has been used in operant conditioning for years. Trainers use the click to train dolphins and sea lions at marine shows and for more than a decade it has been growing in popularity among dog trainers, too.
The concept behind the clicker is not complex- by using a conditioned reinforcer to mark the exact moment when a dog does a correct behavior, you can simplify your training. Everything from basic obedience commands to agility or service work can be trained with a clicker as long as it is done correctly.
The first step to success in clicker training is timing. You must mark exactly the moment that your dog performs the task you want. To learn timing, try practicing without your pup. Take a ball in one hand and toss it into the air and catch it again. At exactly the moment it reaches it its peak height, click. When you can do this successfully 10 times in a row, your hand-eye coordination is primed for clicker training!
The next step is to teach your dog what the click means- cookies! You can do this one of two ways. One process is called “loading the clicker.” Gather a bowl of treats and have your dog sit at attention in front of you. Then start the click-treat relationship using a rapid fire method- click-treat-click-treat-click-treat. Do this several times and your dog will understand that a click predicts a treat. The second method is easier, and that is to simply begin working with the dog on something easy, being sure to always quickly follow the click with a treat.
Using the clicker you can reinforce behaviors that the dog already knows or you can shape behaviors by letting the dog think for himself. For example, Karen Pryor first created the box game, which she calls “101 Things to Do with a Box.” This game sharpens the dog’s mind by asking him to think… wait for it… outside the box! You take a box, a clicker and some treats and wait for the dog to choose an interaction and click him for problem solving. It could be looking at the box, touching it with a paw, nose, picking it up- the game is totally positive and reinforcements should be rapid and plentiful to keep your dog’s mind working. Clicker training is about partnership and training your dog to work with you, not for you.
2. Happy Feet- teaching "Shake" and (coming soon) tolerating nail clipping
Now that you’ve loaded your clicker, it’s time to have some fun with training! In this issue we’re going to demonstrate a new take on a familiar trick to better demonstrate how to use the clicker: shake. For the purpose of this exercise you don’t have to use the clicker, verbal praise might work just as well. But we’re hoping you’ll try the clicker. Check our previous article for information on how to get started.
Some dogs don’t like having their paws touched. In our next article we’ll be using the clicker to show you how to overcome “foot troubles” but this trick is the first step.
Get your clicker, and plenty of treats, and sit down with your dog. The easy way to teach shake, if your dog cooperates, is to hold a smelly treat in your closed fist and put it in front of your dog, about shoulder height. Let her sniff it. Chances are that she’ll try to lick your hand, nudge it, or paw at it. As soon as her paw hits your hand, CLICK and then open your palm for the reward. Try several more times. Your dog will soon be offering her paw to you first thing to get the treat. When she gets to this point, start giving the vocal command “Shake.” Remember to always click BEFORE opening your palm, at the exact moment her paw hits your hand. When she’s ready, hold the treat in your other hand, and give your open palm to your dog. This will be your hand signal for shake. Ask her to shake, click if she paws your hand, then give her the treat. She may be confused for a while, so backpedal if you have to until she is ready to paw your open palm. Once she’s pawing at your hand, try to clean up your act by increasing the time she has to leave her paw in your hand, then clicking and treating. You should be able to get her to leave her paw there until you release it.
Experiment with ways to modify this behavior. You can ask for “high fives” or left or right paws, use “other paw”, etc, by clicking when she offers a behavior that you’re looking for and following this basic outline.
Keep an eye out- in our next article we will have more fun training tips and will continue this lesson to show you how to get your dog to actually enjoy having her nails trimmed!