Thursday, 14 March 2013


When I did my trainers course with the British Institute of Professional Dog Trainers I attended a seminar on ‘Clicker training’. That was more than five years ago. Since then I have been very interested in using the clicker as part of a positive reinforcement training method with my own dogs. I had originally trained my two labs using traditional training methods in road safety obedience. But when I learned about positive reinforcement training methods using a clicker I used that to ‘retrain’ the labs to sharpen up some of their behaviors  Things like stop on recall, or distance control. To my great satisfaction I found the method to be very effective. Clicker training is a term coined by dog trainers. Karen Pryor writes in her book “Clicker Training For Dogs”. “Clicker training is dog trainers ‘slang’ for a positive reinforcement training system based on operant condition”. The clicker is normally a piece of plastic encasing a metal strip which makes a loud clicking noise when you push down on the metal strip. The metal strip is slightly bent inside the plastic under tension. The clicker is used to let the animal know that it has done something correct and will now receive a reward. The crucial component when using reward based training is the timing of giving the dog the signal that it has got it right. This is where the clicker is the most effective tool for ensuring your timing is spot on. Rewarding too soon or too late by even 1 or 2 seconds can mean the dog getting the wrong message and being rewarded for the wrong behavior meaning the dog will take longer to get the final behavior correct. This will lead to frustration not only on your part but the dogs as well.  Teaching an animal to perform a desired behavior is normally done in small increments building on the previous successes until the desired end result is achieved. This is sometimes referred to as ‘shaping’. For example; teaching a dog to sit might begin by clicking and rewarding the dog for starting to lower its back end to the floor. Assuming the dog has already been taught how the clicker method works. Building on this success of the dog beginning to lower its back end the click would be withheld next time until the back end went lower still. And so on and so on until the click was only given when the dog was sitting on the floor then he might be ‘jackpotted’. The ‘Jackpot’ is when we give the dog several treats at the one time for achieving the desired increment first time. Clicker training was first discovered by Marian Bailey and Keller Breland who were graduate students of behaviorist B.F.Skinner. It was first used to reach pigeons during military research but was later used on other species like Bears, Lions, Chickens, dogs and Cats to name a few. Clicker training is also the preferred method of training for marine mammal trainers like the ones we see performing ‘tricks’ at the many sea life amusement parks. If a Killer Whale doesn’t want to do something then it’s not going to do it unless it feels motivated. Reward based training like clicker training is most effective in this way.
For this assignment I decided to try something different. I thought I would teach Miya to ‘wipe her face’. This behavior / trick is used widely in dancing to music sets especially in the freestyle sections. I have watched many handler and dog teams in the rings at crufts do this and it is amazing watching the dog lift its paw up to wipe or hide its face on cue. I also thought it would be a great party piece for family and friends. To begin with I had to get Miya to understand the meaning of the clicker. I took Miya into the conservatory were it was quiet and we were alone. It is important to make sure there are no other distractions around like toys or family members or other house pets which may take Miya’s attention away from me. I started by clicking and giving her a small treat. The treats I was using was cocktail sausages cut up into small pea sized pieces. At first I just clicked and when she looked at me I would treat her by letting her take it from my hand. I moved on from there to clicking and throwing the treat on the floor. The next step was to get Miya to stay in front of me long enough for me to teach her to wipe her face. To do this I first had to teach her to sit and then sit/stay. As she was already trained to senior advance road safety obedience she already knew these behaviors  But I decided to reinforce them with the clicker. This meant I could practice using the clicker on a behavior that I knew she could do. It was practice for both me and Miya. I would ask her to sit and as she sat I clicked and gave her a treat. Then I asked her to stay whilst sitting and left her there for 30 seconds before clicking and giving her a treat. We did this for two days so that I could get the timing right and get Miya used to the click treat process. As I said before she already knew these commands so this part was quite easy.
For the first step in getting Miya to wipe her face I had her sit in front of me and I clicked and treated. Then I took a piece of ribbon about 15cm long by 1 cm wide and placed it over her muzzle half way between her nose and her face. As soon as I placed the ribbon across her nose she bowed her head and lifted her paw to remove the offending article. I immediately clicked and treated this movement. We practiced this for about 5 – 10 minutes. The more repetitions we did in this time the faster Miya was bringing her paw up to her face. I was barely getting my hand out the way before the paw came up. She was learning fast. We finished off this session and had a game of tug. It is very important to finish any session on a win and then a game. That way your dog will look forward to these sessions much more. The second session started much like the first session ended. The one problem I encountered was that Miya was bowing her head as fast as I was placing it now. I had to change the position of the ribbon to above her eyes. In this way the ribbon stayed on longer and made her bring her paw up over her face to bring the ribbon down. At this point I had not given any verbal commands, just clicked when she brought her paw up at the same time bowing her head. We practiced this way for about a week. One session a day after I came home from work, and two sessions at the weekend. As long as I placed the ribbon on Miya she would oblige by removing it with her paw. In the second week I started introducing the command ‘Wash your face’ as her paw touched the ribbon. We did this for about three nights then I changed it up. I started just touching the area of her head were the ribbon was placed and gave the cue ‘Wash your face’. At first she sat looking at me and it would have been easy to repeat the command. But by now Miya was aware of the meaning of the click. So I decided to sit and wait and say nothing to see what she would do. It didn’t take anymore than about 15 seconds before she lifted her paw and touched her nose. I clicked and gave her a jackpot. From here we kept practicing clicking and using the command ‘wash your face’. We did this for another week so that I was getting the response to the cue without touching her.
I would have difficultly relating this ‘trick’ to a natural behavior  I would more liken it satisfying certain natural needs or desires. The need for food. By performing the task she gets the food as a reward. She also satisfies a need for companionship, by working with me she is getting my attention one on one. Again this is a reward for her. In a general sense a natural behavior is one of communicating with a member of her pack, by working with me and carrying out the desired behavior she is communicating to me that she wants the rewards that I am offering her as described above.