Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Power of a Click

I have used a clicker for teaching certain behaviors for several years.  The most complicated trick I’ve taught so far was skateboarding.  The most amazing thing I’ve done with a clicker (so far) is convincing an adult Aussie male foster that the place to pee is outside, not indoors.

My sister-in-law, Karen, has been training dogs since the 70’s.  Around 1990, she became interested in reviving one of the hunting lines of the American Cocker Spaniel that had nearly died out.  She was the driving force in the formation of GLACSHE (Great Lakes American Cocker Spaniel Hunting Enthusiasts) and has a formidable background in training Cockers for hunt tests.

Enter Lacie, a one-year-old, rescue female Cocker with drive and endurance that could really take her a long way.  One problem.  Although Lacie would willingly retrieve her favorite stuffed toy, she wanted no part of picking up a dead bird or even a field dummy.  After butting heads with Lacie over the issue for almost a year, Karen happened upon this video which shows how to clicker train a retrieve.

A week or two later, Karen shot this video which shows Lacie enthusiastically grabbing, holding and delivering her field dummy to hand.

The power of the click lies in several things:

1.  First and foremost, it is a distinct sound that the dog doesn’t hear in any other context.  As such it is an unequivocal way to indicate to the dog she has done the correct thing. Like telepathically telling the dog, “That’s it!  That’s what I want!”

2.  It forces the trainer to think about what she wants to train in new ways.  If the trainer is to be successful using a clicker to train a trick or behavior, she  will be forced to break the behavior down and analyze the steps involved in a way they might never have considered doing before.

3.  Your dog learns that she can make something good (the C/T) happen by her actions.  For some (perhaps most) dogs this is a very powerful and awakening concept.  They become active participants in their training.

4.  As a direct consequence of #3, behaviors are “owned” by the dog not imposed by the trainer.  Belle and Libby both were shaped to skateboard.  At most, I drag the board out once or twice a year.  But because they “figured out” how to skateboard for themselves, the behavior is still intact.  I’m not suggesting you can shape a behavior and then expect the dog to remember it forever, but I do think it becomes more firmly established than a behavior that was taught by leading the dog by the collar and getting her to perform.

5.  In agility, without timing your runs are doomed.  Using a clicker to mark a behavior will will give you a whole new appreciation for timing ;-)  Hopefully, as your timing improves while clicker training, there will be some spillover of that improvement into your agility handling.

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