Written by Eric Brad
One of the first things we had to learn as clicker trainers was the basic contract that makes clicker training work. When your dog hears a click, they will get paid. Every time. No exceptions. It’s the basis on which all clicker training works. Our young dog Rizzo, like his older sister Tira, learned to depend on that signal. Click means treat. Of course, it’s up to us as trainers to use that clicker properly to shape the behaviours we want. But from the Rizzo’s perspective, there should never be confusion about what that click means. It means he has earned a reward. Guaranteed.
Once Rizzo trusted that click as a signal of a reward coming, his learning could begin. Then it was up to Rizzo to explore the different things that can get the click (and the promised reward) to happen. We could almost see it in Rizzo’s eyes when we started his training at eight weeks old: “Hang on a minute! If I…..touch my nose….to that thing….” Click! Treat! Woohoo! Understanding dawned.
Little Rizzo had worked out that he could control the click by offering behaviours. A new world had opened up for him to explore. What else could make the click happen? Once we had established that idea in Rizzo, the only limits became our ability to mark the behaviours we wanted to encourage with the clicker. Of course this could only work if we kept our part of the bargain. Click means treat. Guaranteed. That's how we taught it.
A necessary part of clicker training is gradually fading out the use of the clicker and the delivery of treats every time you get a behaviour. You also have to put a name to a behaviour. We used to call those “Commands” undefined but now we call them “Cues.”
Some trainers don’t see a difference in those two terms but we do. When I look at Rizzo and say “Sit!” what I’m really saying is, “Hey buddy, here’s a chance for you to earn a treat if you put your butt on the floor.” That’s a cue. That’s very different from saying “Sit!” and meaning “If you don’t put your butt on the floor, you’ll regret it.” That, to me, is a command. One is a choice, the other really isn’t. A cue is a request; a command is an imperative. A subtle change of intention in asking for, and not demanding, behaviour changes the nature of the relationship.
We have some friends who think all we do is train with our dogs. They are not really wrong. We use every opportunity to reinforce, teach new behavious, strengthen well known behaviours, and practice. And that may all this may sound like nothing but work for poor dogs. But it isn’t like that. With positive reinforcement, training is favorite game in our home. Every lesson and every behaviour offered brings something good for dogs: a food treat, a game of tug, or even being let out back to run in the yard.
All of this work brings us a lot more benefit than just having good dogs with good manners and a lot of interesting tricks they can do. Using clicker training and behavioural science teaches our dogs some other very important lessons about life too undefined call them “life skills.” There are four that we find particularly important:
Creativity undefined Because our dogs are encouraged to try things without fear of being punished for doing it “wrong”, they discovers that trying different things or even inventing new responses can sometimes pay off. “Give it a try, it just might pay off” might be how they think about it.
Persistence undefined We try to keep our dog’s success rate pretty high in training. We try to ask for only a little more than they has given us before so that they learns new things in achievable increments. So every training session offers lots of great rewards, and even if something is difficult or takes a while to learn, it always pays off. Our dogs might say, “If I just keep trying, this will eventually pay off!”
Focus undefined Training happens a lot in our dogs’s lives and it can happen any time an opportunity arises for us to show them how we want them to behave. Since training always involves “good stuff” like treats or play, our dogs come to focus on us when we’re around and not as much on everything else. If we want their attention, we get it. “There might be something good just around the corner so pay attention to mom and dad!”
Awareness and engaging the world undefined We work on a lot of different behaviours in a lot of different places. It’s important to try out even established behaviours in new places or with new distractions. New environments might even provide new and unique training opportunities (e.g., you can only get used to fast moving cars when you’re next to a busy street). If you asked our dogs, they would tell you “Stay sharp! You never know what might get you a click or a reward so pay attention and check out stuff!”
For us, training our dogs is not just about getting them to “behave” or to have good manners or to comply with our wishes. It’s about giving our dogs a healthy outlook on life and living with us. They should be able to count on us for more than food and water and shelter. Our dogs also count on us for clear communication, help when they are confused or frightened, and the security of knowing that their world will be consistent undefined yes will be yes, no will be no, etc.
There is no greater gift we can give to a dog, in my opinion, than to provide a home that shows them what’s expected and rewards them for their efforts. How comforting it must be for them to know what to expect and be given every opportunity to discover how to succeed and thrive.