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The Click Starts the Behavior

By Yvette Van Veen

Dog giving trainer a paw
Clicking marks a target behavior, after which there is generally a short window of time prior to reinforcement © Can Stock Photo / izelPhotography

A common expression used in clicker training is that the click “ends the behavior.” Rarely do we stop to think what this really means but it bears closer examination.

Typically, the phrase indicates that dogs get reinforcement post-click, even if they have broken out of position. We click. The dog gets a cookie. There is no reneging.

When I say click, I really mean marking the behavior. For the sake of clarity, I will also be using the word click to reference the wide array of commonly used markers such as “yes” or “good.” What these all have in common is that the marker indicates that the dog did a desirable behavior. Reinforcement in the form of something the dog likes follows the click.

Collecting the Paycheck

After the click, there is a window of time between the click and the reinforcement. This brief period may only last one or two seconds. For more seasoned dogs, this may be a little longer. Generally, it is a small window.

In this space and time, dogs stop what they are doing at the sound of the click. They take a moment to collect the proverbial paycheck. One behavior ends and another begins. Once the dog collects, it is hoped that they quickly return to work on earning further reinforcements.

Collecting on reinforcement is an active process. Dogs are behaving during this time. They often move toward an owner’s hand in happy anticipation. They meet their people halfway knowing a cookie is imminent. Clicking may end the target behavior. It also starts paycheck collection behavior.

Position of Reinforcement

The location in which we give our dog a treat is like a magnet. It draws the dog closer. With repetition, dogs start creeping toward the reinforcement zone. They linger there.

Referring to the position of reinforcement as a payroll department is quite apropos. In the days prior to online banking, staff would pick up their paychecks in person at the payroll department. Staff would repeatedly check payroll throughout the day until checks arrived. The act of going to payroll took people away from their work.

Dogs do something similar. Dogs, unlike people, go to their payroll department repeatedly during a training session. When they hear the click, it is payday. Paycheck seeking begins. For many dogs this means nudging the owner’s hand. Dogs know where that treat is likely to come from.

Training an Incompatible Behavior

Imagine for a moment the typical, friendly juvenile dog that jumps on guests. In an effort to change this behavior, we set out to teach an incompatible behavior such as a sit. In a well-meaning effort to achieve this goal, the owners dispense treats to all family, friends and guests. Many people are asked to feed the dog for sitting politely instead of jumping.

Clicking sits would increase sitting behavior. By having other people doling out the food, the dog’s payroll department is with those other people. Sitting is not the only behavior that increases. Running toward other people also increases. Focus on the owner decreases. Should the dog be on leash, pulling in order to get to guests may increase.

The dog is rightly convinced that good behavior is paid elsewhere – from the hands of strangers. Ironically, clicking the awesome behavior of sitting can start a slew of other problematic behaviors.

A better option is for the owner to click and treat the dog for sitting politely. This should be done while guests act as distractions. Change the position of the reinforcement to change the location of the payroll department.

This way, the dog has reason to sit so the sitting behavior increases. He also has reason to stay by the owner’s side. Combine the new reinforcement zone with a high rate of reinforcement and a better cycle emerges. The dog will linger near the owner and learn to wait for guests to approach. Incentive for pulling toward other people decreases. The location of your payroll department can either help or hinder the training progress.

Premack Principle

Using reinforcements found in the environment can lure a dog out of position too. Using Premack* based exercises, loose leash walking can be reinforced with sniffing and wandering. The dog may try to walk politely. One paw is ready to dart off to payroll at any moment.

Premack exercises are not bad. They are often used prematurely as a means of getting away from food rewards. Do not rush away from food use too soon or use these exercises as a way of avoiding food altogether.

Food is not the enemy. Treats allow in position feeding. In loose leash walking, that would be beside our leg. Place considerable weight on reinforcements that pay out in the position you want the dog to be.

Stationary behaviors, such as stay, benefit from in position feeding. Teach the dog that paychecks are delivered directly to him. If he pops up out of a stay after being clicked, walk him back to the location of the stay. Feed in position.

Anticipating and darting out of the stay encourages the dog to meet you halfway. You get what you reinforce and that is not only the behavior you are clicking.

At other times it makes sense to pay off into the distance. Teaching leave-it is one such time. Few people want a dog sitting next to the dinner table. Few people relish the idea of a dog drooling on their dinner. A cat rarely wants to eat with a dog looming overhead. Situations such as this are more than leave it. We want leave it to include moving away.

As dogs demonstrate a rudimentary understanding of leave it, start feeding reinforcements away from the distraction. I tell clients to “feed at the dog’s backside.” With repetition, dogs start creeping back and away. The more the dog creeps, the more the creeping is reinforced. One day, dinner is placed on the table and the dog runs to payroll on the other side of the room.

Feeding Location

Dog sports often reinforce away into the distance. Throwing toys out past an agility obstacle creates motion in the direction of the toy. Back up benefits from clicking backwards motion. Reinforcement that encourages further movement creates more backing away. Feed so that the dog anticipates he will need to move back in order to obtain the treat.

Feeding away and off to the side is another useful technique. It is used to encourage the dog out of position. There are several occasions when this might be worth considering. Sometimes we may wish to drill a particular movement. Our goal may be fast repetitions.

Working on sit with a novice dog might require us to feed in such a manner that the dog stands up. Standing up allows the dog to sit again. It would be a temporary measure used to reset the dog and increase the rate or reinforcement. Tossing a treat to the side can also help owners to regroup and reload.

Small Movements, Big Consequences

Sometimes the difference between effective and ineffective position feeding is centimeters. Small movements have big consequences. This profound difference is demonstrated in this video, Dog A vs. Dog B, which shows two dogs who have been taught the same behavior using the same training plans where only one minor detail has been changed – the location of the dog’s payroll department is different. A duration touch is the goal behavior.

The Border collie quickly grasps the idea of duration while the mixed breed dog struggles. Initial touches fail to materialize into confident duration behaviors. Criteria is reduced each time he struggles. Without strong supporting position feeding he continues faltering. That struggling leads to frustrated, flustered and agitated behavior. Other, less persistent dogs may quit and wander off.

These problems are sometimes mislabeled as attention issues or impulse control. Food given at the side creates head shaking rather than a duration hold. A behavioral tug-of-war forms. The dog is torn between touching the target and collecting his treat. The position of the food undermines efforts.

Struggling is not a function of breed. In other videos, the roles are reversed. The Border collie quickly begins to struggle when faced with the same training error. The mixed breed starts to shine when the problem is rectified.

These types of minute changes in the location of feeding are helpful when teaching skills such as retrieves, duration based exercises and pure shaping.

Feeding in position sets the dog up for success as future criteria increases. Dogs are already offering many right responses at the new levels because the location of the reinforcement is leading the dog into that direction.

Extinction bursts are reduced if not avoided altogether. More success means a high rate of reinforcement for the dog. The dog learns readily and clients feel good when their dog is working on point.

Clicking may very well end one behavior. The small void of space and time that lies between the click and the treat matters a great deal. Your payroll department is a magnet driving the behavior that lies in this crevice. Giving thought to how it is used offers many ways of maximizing training outcomes.

* In operant conditioning, the Premack Principle, developed by David Premack, states that a commonly occurring action (one more desirable for the actor) can be used effectively as a reinforcer for a less commonly occurring one (that is, one less desirable for the actor). A common example used to illustrate this principle is a parent requiring a child to clean his or her room before he or she can watch television. In this case, television, an activity that probably does not require reinforcement, is used as a reinforcer for cleaning the room, which in the context of this example the child would not do without reinforcement. – Psychology Wiki, n.d.

This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, November 2015, pp.24-25.

Yvette Van Veen PCT-A is a dog behavior consultant and owner of Awesome Dogs, She is also a long-time columnist and multiple Dog Writers Association of America award nominee, and currently writes a regular column for The Toronto Star. She has worked with rescue dogs for more than 14 years, focusing mainly on rural, roaming and feral rescue dogs from communities throughout Ontario and Quebec, Canada. She is also the creator of Awesome Dogs Shareables,, an educational meme site providing resources and training tips in small, shareable formats.

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