Yesterday, I published my first tutorial to youtube. This video features the very earliest stages of training a dog to walk politely with you. There are a number of more advanced exercises I hope to record and share in the future, but this is how I like to start the behavior. In the classroom, I usually start students working while their dogs are tethered, via a long leash, so that the students can focus on the mechanical skills of reinforcement delivery and return to home base, getting comfortable handling their clicker and treats. When the handlers begin working with the leash in their hands, the dog has already learned that staying at the left hand side pays off. It’s much easier to handle your leash, clicker, and treats when you don’t have a 95-lb dog pulling your arm off!
I’m quite new at filming and editing, so the lighting, sound, and content isn’t really perfect or refined. Nonetheless, hopefully it gives you some ideas on how to begin this behavior with your dog. A few viewers have posted questions or contacted me with questions regarding the video. Here are the answers to some FAQ’s that I’ve received since posting the video:
I’ve always heard you’re supposed to use the clicker to mark the behavior you want. Why are you clicking and treating Cuba when he is in the wrong position?
The clicker has two fundamental jobs. It a) marks the behavior and b) announces reinforcement availability. The former function of a clicker is its operant conditioning application, the latter is a classical conditioning application of clicker training. Behavioral researcher Jesús Rosales-Ruiz, Ph.D. says that the “clicker is a cue to go get food.” That is how I’m using the clicker in the early stages of loose leash walking training. I’m classically conditioning the dog to learn that being in that spot is a predictor of good things happening for the dog. Once the behavior has been built to where the dog is able to maintain the position and understands staying “in the pocket” is the name of the game, I like to switch to operant conditioning. In this video, I began clicking for duration using “300 pecks.” In other sessions, I’ll begin clicking for precision – position of the head, tightness of the heel behavior, etc. Eventually, I will need both a true heel and a conformation gait with Cuba, both of which will be taught separately and put on cue.
What if my dog makes an error during “300 pecks”?
First, make sure you work this behavior in many short sessions. Dogs don’t generally have very long attention spans, so quit on a success and always leave your dog wanting more. Dogs that begin wandering off, sniffing, etc. may be telling you to shorten your session length.
In the video description, I linked to a great article from Laura VanArendonk Baugh that has a nice method for dealing with errors when using 300 pecks. I personally change direction and resume counting the same number of steps as on the failed trial as soon as the dog catches up with me and finds the position. If the dog makes two mistakes in a row, I need to assess the situation in more depth – is the training environment too distracting? Should I increase the value of my reinforcement? Should we take a break on the behavior for this session?
What if I don’t want to use a clicker?
You never have to use a clicker. There is compelling research that clicker training will allow you to train new behaviors faster and with fewer reinforcements than if you use a verbal marker but verbal markers work nonetheless. Here are some properties which identify a good marker:
- Is distinct and unique. Does not sound like praise or any existing cues. Is not heard in every day conversation. Is said in the exact same tone, every single time.
- Is salient – easily perceived by the dog in a wide variety of positions and environments.
- Is consistently paired with positive reinforcement – whether or not the clicker or other marker needs to be “charged” is a topic now up for debate. Many people simply start using the clicker to mark correct behaviors, following with reinforcement, with great success.
- Is brief – if you are using a sound or word, think short, staccato. Sentences don’t make great markers.
Other questions will be answered in future videos. Thanks for your feedback everyone, hope that this blog helps clear up some of the questions you may have had!