Friday, January 23, 2009

34. A Primer on Clicker Training: Getting Started

This blog was in response to someone who was brand new to clicker training and needed to understand the basics to get started. Thank you Ashley for the question!

Once your dog understands that click equals treat (just take 30 treats and one by one click and give him one treat as quickly as you can afterward. When he turns his head toward you after hearing the click, you know he understands that it means the treat) you can jump right into capturing a behavior before shaping as capturing is an important part of shaping.

Choose your first few behaviors carefully. These behaviors will later become the ones he offers when he is unsure of what you want (called default behaviors) so make sure they are ones you can live with and that won't later distract from training. Sit, down or eye contact are the best ones to start with. Nose and paw targeting come next.

Set your training sessions to be short. 10 quick repetitions (reps) then a one minute break, then 10 more and a break, then 10 more, break, 10 more for a total of 40 is a great starting point for an adult dog. Less for puppies. The breaks allow for latent learning to occur and also build his eagerness to work with you.

As your dog increases his attention span, you can increase either the number of reps from 10 to 12 ot 14 etc or the number of sessions from 4 to 5 to 6, but not both at the same time. You can work on two or more behaviors if you want but for beginning dogs I start with one, then during a different training session say a couple of hours later, train a different behavior. Once your dog understands a few behaviors, then you can train 3 or more during a longer training session. Say 20 reps of one and 20 reps of another.

The first behavior I train is usually the eye contact. This is great default behavior for any dog. How you train this is to simply stand or sit in front of him in a quiet room-no distractions- with him either standing or sitting, then wait for him to look in your eyes. Start with just a brief glance. C/t.

When you get a brief glance 8/10 times when he looks your way, you can start asking for a half second glance. When 8/10 times he looks at you for a half second, start asking for 1 second. Then two. To get to three seconds may take several training sessions, depending on how much eye contact he naturally does or if you have worked on it already. You will want to throw in some shorter ones every now and so the task isn't always harder for him. If it is, he may decide to quit.) Work your way slowly upto 10 seconds.

So after he can look for 7 seconds, that might look like this:
1 sec, c/t, 2 sec, c/t, 3 sec, c/t, 4 sec, c/t, 5 sec, c/t, 2 sec, c/t, 4 sec, c/t, 5 sec, c/t, 6 sec, c/t, 7 sec, c/t, 3 sec, c/t 1 sec, c/t, 4 sec, c/t, 5 sec, c/t, 6 sec, c/t, 7 sec, c/t, etc.

In a different training session, start capturing a sit. Click anytime he sits. A great way to get this is to wait for him to do it. Sit down, read a book or watch a quiet TV, and watch for him to do it out of the corner of your eye. Be ready to clikc the instant his bum hits the ground. If he more naturally does a down, start with that and click the instand his elbows hit the ground. You'll notice that once he figures out the sit gets him the click, he'll start offering it faster and faster. Throw the treat just out of his reach so he must get up from that position and can offer it again.

Now is time to change your position as you don't want him to get stuck thinking that a sit only occurs when you are sitting or reading the paper or whatever. Stand up, sit in a chair, sit on the floor. All in the same room to start, then in another room. Do 10 repetitions (reps) in each position. If he can't do it, you may need to do an intermediate position to make it easier for him to understand and do more reps. Think of it as a "Can you still do THIS when I change my body position" game. (The THIS refers to sit, down, eye contact or other behaviors you are teaching.)

When he offers a sit no matter what position you are standing in and no matter what room you are in, you can name the behavior. Start in one position and wait for the sit behavior and do 10 in a row, click and treat each sit. When he can offer 8 sits out of 10 fairly quickly, he is ready for you to start naming it. (Notice you are naming the behavior only AFTER he has demonstrated he can do it.)

Each time he sits, say the cue "sit" just as he starts to do it, c/t as usual. After 20 reps like that, say the cue 'sit' just as you see his legs tensing up to sit, or his bum starting to drop. After about 30 reps, test to see if he understands what sit means. Say it before he starts to move. If he can do this 8/10 times, he likely has learned what behavior the cue is indicating. If not, keep saying the behavior as he offers and periodically test to see if he understands it.

Now change your position and practice 10 reps again, Then use the same process to teach the cue in each popstion and in different rooms. Each position he'll understand faster that sit means sit no matter what position you are in. When you have done this for one behavior it also comes more quickly for other behaviors.

Some dogs learn verbal cues fast, some learn them slowly. If it is important that your dog learn a cue quickly for some reason, try using a hand signal. Dogs are very tuned inot body movement and most quickly learn a hand signal before a verbal cue. I prefer to use hand signals to make it easy for my dogs. My current dog also has trouble with cues for some behaviors. Do what works for your dog. If you plan on going into competition, your dog will need to learn the verbals, but that can be taught later. (To change or add a cue, check out my blog on training cues).

Next try a down (or sit if you already did the down).
Remember that with the clicker, you do not give a verbal cue. Your simply capture the behavior you want. Then much later when the behavior is complete, (exactly as you want it) only then do you add the cue.

Everytime you start in a new location, stop using the cue until your dog is offering it 8/10 times. Then you can have a good idea that he will respond in that location.

From here, you can start with the

object-based shaping
. Nose and foot targeting are important skills too.

Other Helpful On-line Resources has many articles to read about the how to's. They have a section on the basics. And a yahoo discussion group to ask questions etc. has articles by experts.

Sue Ailby's Training levels (free on-line book) is a great training program for any dog. We highly recommend it. It teaches your dog life skills and you how to be a better trainer!

(see Blog 15 for details)

See also our recommended books on our blog directory. "Don't Shoot the Dog" is on the top of my list to help you understand your options in training.