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Learning to Learn: the Nuts and Bolts


When I started out in the behavioral field, I was only working with rescue groups, teaching them what I had learned about clicker training… but I was a babe myself, and I didn’t really realize that there was so much more I could be doing, and so much more that I just didn’t understand, using those old methods!


I didn’t realize, then, that what I was learning was an entire life philosophy… not just dog training. I was working solely through rescue… so all I was doing was helping to put a band-aid on the REAL problem: people were still surrendering their dogs to rescue, rather than being given the information they needed to work with their dogs! When I realized that I needed to reach the pet-owners directly, I started to widen my horizons… having the rescue groups refer owners to me for free behavioral counseling, rather than giving up their dogs.


From there, I was hooked… I started working much more intensively with owners who had been counseled to euthanize their dogs for profound behavior problems, mostly aggression. I was researching constantly, finding new creative ways to manage and modify behavior, and taking courses to help me further understand how all of this fits together.


I educate constantly, though email groups for rescue and pet-owners, in online classrooms, in pet supply stores, in the park, at the bank, and even when I’m “off duty” playing my favorite game. {grin} I love what I do.


So… I’m here to teach you a little about non-force training philosophy, with a basis in clicker training. We’re not going to get hung up on all the technical jargon and theory… this is a beginner course. We’re going to concentrate on the “how-to” aspects of clicker training, and what you can expect from it.


Why am I so against the use of force methods?


Because, first, it’s not necessary. There is nothing that you can teach, using force, that I can’t teach better without the use of force. Why do I say “better”? Because we’ll both “get the behavior”… but the methods I use don’t have negative emotions attached to them... negative fallout (fallout is just a 'side effect' of the teaching method... and there is both positive and negative fallout). It’s always better to take the shortest, cleanest route, whenever possible… and the shortest, cleanest route in training is in the use of positive reinforcement. This is important:


Training Mantra #1: Behavior is driven by reinforcement.


Read that statement again, internalize it, make it a part of you. It will be your primary mantra, your driving force, in training.


All beings (ALL of them!) will work to find a way to gain reinforcement. Birds, fish, cats, dogs, llamas, turkeys, elephants, humans... they are driven to do this – it’s how they’ve survived. This makes reinforcement THE most driving force available to us, in teaching… all we have to do is figure out how to use this, in any context, to gain appropriate behavior from our dogs (or cats, or husbands) I promise you, it’s not hard to do.  It's harder to explain it, than to do it.


If he’s chewing things that you don’t want him to chew, the reinforcement is chewing (and, it's YOU that messed up, not him, by leaving those inappropriate items where he can reach them)). Give him things to chew that you feel are appropriate alternatives, and make those inappropriate ones inaccessible.  In fact, those appropriate items are the ONLY ones available.  It's your job to make sure he can't mess up in making choices for chew toys.  


This sets your dog up to succeed, and everyone wins. If he’s counter-surfing, remove temptation, and the behavior will stop on its own (no reinforcement, the behavior stops – this is called “management”, and management is covered later). If he’s tearing out the garbage, put the garbage AWAY, and he can’t do it.


Aversive methods (methods that rely on the introduction or removal of something that the dog doesn’t LIKE) , and aversives only suppress behavior… aversives don’t stop behavior. As soon as the opportunity presents itself, the dog WILL engage in the undesirable behavior again, if the reinforcement is strong enough – because reinforcement (that sandwich on the counter) is what drives behavior.


Aversive methods also sacrifice trust, and are prone to teaching “superstitious behaviors”. If you yell at or hit your dog for behavior that you feel is inappropriate (note that I didn’t say “IS inappropriate” – because your dog may not know it’s inappropriate), then the punishment is unfair, and trust is sacrificed.


And, if your timing is a little off, and you punish something besides the intended “inappropriate” behavior, that’s how “superstitious behaviors” are born… the dog becomes fearful (and even aggressive) in a situation where he wasn’t, before… and this fearful behavior often has nothing to do with the initial situation, so it can be difficult to determine the source.




Hannah is a 9-yr-old female St. Bernard, rescued from her lifelong owner about 6 months ago. She had been an Animated Lawn Ornament for her entire life, on a chain, only coming into the house to have her single litter of puppies. Hannah’s owners trained her with a shock collar, and they did their job too well. When she came to me, she had been diagnosed as “incontinent”, and was on medications for this (they were not helping)… urine and feces would just shoot out behind her, as she was walking along.


After about 3 weeks here, I noticed that this “incontinence” only took place if Hannah was on-lead… and started testing this theory to make a behavioral assessment. I found that Hannah had been trained to such a tight heel position with the shock collar that she wouldn’t stop to go potty… she was afraid to – ON-LEAD. I took her off all medications for incontinence, when I realized what was going on.


It took about 2 months of marking pottying behavior that I wanted to encourage (stopping and squatting to potty)… Hannah will now squat to pee and poop, when she’s on-lead and in her “potty area” – outside of that area, she still reverts part of the time, but we’re getting there.


Superstitious Behaviors:


I am often consulted for this particular problem (it’s very common!), and it’s a sore spot, for me… because owners aren’t forewarned of this particular dilemma, when sold a “bark collar” (or any kind of shock collar):


Barking is a very common complaint for pet-owners… and pet stores make a huge percentage of their profit from the sale of “quick-fix” items like “anti-bark” collars. These collars are most-often sold for dogs who bark-bark-bark when someone knocks on the door. IF your timing is exceptional, the visitor knocks on the door, the dog barks and is shocked, and the dog associates the shock with the bark. Sounds logical, right?


What the salesman doesn’t tell you, though, is that the dog is just as likely to associate the shock with the visitor, as he is to associate the shock with the bark… because they’re both presented at the same time.


So, when I’m consulted for these kinds of scenarios, it’s not usually for barking, because the barking has stopped… it’s because the dog has suddenly become fearful/aggressive toward people who visit.


Think about this: how unfair is it for a dog to bark happily because they’re getting a visitor, and be shocked for it?  By the way, this same scenario is also an all-too-common side-affect of the use of “underground” fencing.  The owner is often left with an even bigger mess to clean up.  This is a "superstitious" behavior.


So, no, I don’t recommend force/aversive methodology, at all… behavior is driven by reinforcement, and reinforcement is the fastest, cleanest way to achieve the desired results – without negative repercussions.  But, now you need to know how to apply reinforcement, in order to teach your dog what he needs to know. {grin} There are methods to the madness… I’ll teach you.


First, understand that I’m teaching you to teach your dog appropriate behavior, without the use of force… the methods that you’ll learn from me aren’t “permissive”. I don’t advocate “chaos” and “anarchy”… I advocate non-force methodology and acceptance of species differences. There’s a difference. {grin}


Clicker training has several benefits that we often don’t think about, actively. As you progress in your learning, you’ll see this:


**That your dog will be more enthusiastic.

**That your dog’s problem-solving capability will increase.

**That your OWN problem-solving capability will increase, in response. {grin}

**That your dog will be able to focus for increasing amounts of time.

**That your dog will be better prepared to cope with successively larger amounts of stress.

**That you and your dog will build a stronger, more trusting relationship, because you’ll each know what to expect from the other!


Training Mantra #2: A Behavior That’s Reinforced WILL Be Repeated!


In learning to “mark” behaviors, you’ll find that it’s relatively important to build your timing skills. {grin} This is necessary because if you mark the “wrong” behavior, then that behavior will be repeated (and repeated… and repeated {grin}). However, one of the best aspects of this type of training is that “mistakes” in training are very easily fixed – you simply stop reinforcing that behavior, and it will extinguish itself.


And, you’ve not associated yourself, the situation, or anything else with anything negative. You’ve not harmed your relationship with the dog.


There are several ways to build your timing skills: you can jump into training, teaching “stupid pet tricks”. This will allow you to strengthen these important skills, without sacrificing any important behaviors (like ‘sit’ or ‘heel’) in the process. You can play the “training game” with humans, learning shaping skills and timing sequences, again without sacrificing anything important in the process. 


The “How-To’s”


In clicker training philosophy, a “marker” (a noise or gesture) is used that tells the dog when he’s done something to earn reinforcement. That's the only information that's communicated: you earned reinforcement for the behavior you're offering right now... it doesn't say 'I'm happy about it", or "I don't like that one"... no emotions are communicated, and that's where the power is.  If you choose to use a verbal marker, be aware that the use of verbal markers also impart emotion... it's almost impossible to keep from injecting emotion into the learning process.  So, if you find yourself getting frustrated or even angry when trying to teach your dog, you might want to start with the clicker, until you see the benefits inherent to this kind of training.  Many clicker trainers will only use a clicker, and many will only use a verbal marker… I use either, dependent on how much precision I require in the behavior (actually, I rarely use a clicker, except when teaching). This really depends on the individual, and what you’re teaching. Your dog won’t be confused if you switch from one to the other, after he’s learned the rules to the game.


If you’re teaching companion-style obedience, then using a verbal marker is fine. Competitive sports require more precision, though… the use of the clicker is recommended.


There are 2 ways of teaching the dog the meaning of the marker: you can “charge” the marker (teach the dog that the sound means “you get a treat!”), or you can simply jump in, training… either way, he’ll get it. If you’re brand-new to this, you might consider charging the marker first, so that you’ll understand the process involved. Note: when I say “mark”, I mean either “click” or “verbal” marker.


In addition, changing position for reward delivery and mark is recommended at first, to teach the animal that it's not just one position that will earn reinforcement... lots of offered behaviors will be marked and reinforced (so that you don't end up with a dog that will just 'glue his butt to the floor' when he sees the clicker in your hand).

The process:


Mark  treat

Mark  treat

Mark  treat

Mark  treat


Repeat the Mark  treat sequence every second or so, for about 20-25 repetitions… then:


Mark  pause


If the dog looks to your treat hand when you pause, then the marker is charged – the dog understands that the sound means he’s getting a treat! If he doesn’t look to your treat hand, then just continue on with the Mark  treat sequence for 10 or so more repetitions, and test it again with a pause. Continue this way until the dog looks to your treat hand expectantly.


Caution: I have met 2 dogs who have sensitized to the sound of the clicker. Sensitization is the opposite of desensitization… instead of becoming “used to” something (desensitizing), the animal develops a very strong FEAR of it. If your dog shows ANY sign of sensitization to the clicker, stop using it immediately, and continue with the use of a verbal marker, or move to something less noisy, like a clicker in a sock to muffle it, or even an ink pen that clicks.


Signs of sensitization include ducking away, jumping back, when they hear the “click”… at this point, if you see this type of behavior, STOP and use the verbal marker! Granted, 2 dogs is NOT very many, when compared to all the dogs I’ve worked with… but sensitization is a very serious problem!


Now, the marker is “charged”… what next? Well, you now have a way to mark those behaviors that you feel are appropriate, or just fun… and a behavior that’s rewarded is repeated… and repeated… and repeated. {grin} You’re way over halfway there!


Clicker training allows me to manipulate rewards in a way that provides *feedback*, either that I like what the dog is doing, or that I would rather the dog find another way to earn reinforcement. If I like what the dog is doing, I say "GOOD!" to MARK the behavior, then offer reinforcement. If I don't like what the dog is doing, I say "huh-uh" to mark the behavior, no reinforcement is offered, and then the dog tries another behavior.

The “huh-uh” is called a “No Reward Marker” (NRM)… all it means is “that behavior doesn’t get rewarded right now… try something else”.


Example of using each marker:


I ask Tory for a ‘sit’, she sits, I say “good!” and reinforce. The “good” is my verbal marker, to let her know exactly what it was that I liked.  Giving the reward seals the bargain between us.


I ask Tory for a ‘sit’, and she ‘downs’, I say “huh-uh”, and wait… she ‘sits’, I say “good!”, and reinforce. The “huh-uh” (the NRM) helped her to understand that I’m not reinforcing ‘downs’ right now… and it allowed her to remain “in the game”, because it’s not overtly aversive in nature. The opportunity for reinforcement is still there… just not for that particular behavior at this time.


Another example:


Rody walks into the kitchen while I’m doing dishes, comes over to me and ‘sits’ for attention. I say “Good!” and reinforce.


Rody walks into the kitchen, comes over and jumps up on me for attention. I say “huh-uh”, he ‘sits’, and I reinforce.


This example illustrates the use of the 2 markers in teaching the dog which behaviors are unacceptable, without removing the opportunity for reinforcement. This is very important, because removal of the opportunity for reinforcement can cause a sensitive dog to shut down, emotionally.


Note #1: before I teach the dog that “huh-uh” means that they won’t earn reinforcement for a behavior, I first make sure that there is another, more appropriate behavior to reinforce. I actively teach that behavior. For example, if I don’t want the dog to jump on me for attention, I first teach that sitting gains attention, consistently. This gives the dog an alternative way to earn reinforcement.


Note #2: If your dog has learned, for example, that jumping on you will always (or, almost always) be reinforced (through yelling, eye-contact, pushing him off, kneeing him in the chest, petting, hugs, etc.), then withholding the reinforcement may cause an extinction burst. An extinction burst is, simply, performing the behavior over and over, in an effort to gain the expected reinforcement.


Continuing to ignore the inappropriate behavior while reinforcing the appropriate will allow the behavior to extinguish. To help this process go faster, the use of management --  in this case, a stationary board that will keep the dog from jumping up on you -- will give him the time he needs to calm and think about what he needs to do to earn reinforcement.  Trust me on this -- DO NOT revert to your old ways of handling the situation, or you’ll reinforce the extinction burst, and cause it to become even more resistant to extinction.


Note #3: It’s IMPORTANT to always follow the marker (either verbal or clicker) with reinforcement. Even if you “mess up” and mark a “wrong” behavior as deserving of reinforcement, don’t forget to reinforce. The Training Game is a BARGAIN between you and your dog… if you don’t carry through on your end of the bargain, then how can he trust the “marker” the next time you give it?


Note #4: The marker ENDS the behavior. This means that it’s OKAY for your dog to “pop” out of the ‘sit’ position to come get his treat, the instant he hears the marker – if your dog does this, it means he understands the game! When you’re ready to increase the duration of the ‘sit’, you simply gradually increase the length of time between giving the command, his sitting, and your marking it.


What Words to Use as the Markers?


That’s you’re preference… lots of people use “good”, a tongue-click, or “yes” to mark behavior as worthy of reinforcement – you can use “potato” if you’d like. It really doesn’t matter, so long as you’re consistent in using the same word.


For the NRM, lots of people use “huh-uh”, “wrong”, “nope” – again, you can use “frog”, so long as you’re consistent in its use. 2 important strategies here: DO NOT inject negativity into whichever word you choose for this… you simply want it to communicate to the dog that “this particular behavior isn’t being reinforced, at this time” – injecting negativity into the marker may cause the dog to feel like he’s been harshly corrected, which may mean that you won’t see that behavior again.  In addition, don't use the clicker for this... the clicker marks behavior as worthy of reinforcement.  The NRM marks behavior as NOT earning reinforcement at this time.


How to get those behaviors, in the first place…


There are several ways to get behaviors, although one is difficult (my opinion), and one has undesirable consequences (again, my opinion). I’ll outline them here, and discuss:


Shaping: This is the method that’s most likely to achieve lasting results… because when the dog is forced to figure things out for himself, it sticks with him longer. Shaping involves reinforcing successive approximations to the desired behavior (tiny increments of a head-turn, for example). I use shaping as a secondary method… I prefer to start with luring, then shape approximations to the behavior I want.


Capturing: this is the purest form of getting a behavior… it requires a lot of time and patience, because you have to wait for the dog to do something on it’s own.


Luring: I use some method to have the dog follow into position… either using food, a toy, or target stick. Note that this is NOT modeling (following). I use luring ALOT. I use it to teach 'sit', 'down', 'heel'. I use it to teach 'roll over', I use it to teach targeting. I use it to teach off, going in a particular direction.


Modeling: putting your hands on the dog, to move him into position. Modeling can cause problems… the actual placing of the dog becomes a part of the behavior, and has to be faded, if possible. This can be difficult to do!


Again, I prefer to use a combination of luring and shaping, depending on what I’m teaching. These are my preferences, though… play around, and find out which suit your style. Everyone is different – including the dogs – and you have to find what works with each individual.


Actual Training Sessions:


Training sessions should be SHORT, and FUN! In fact, I keep treats all over my house, and just reinforce appropriate behavior as it happens… I firmly believe that Every Opportunity Is A Learning Opportunity, and the environment works 24/7 to Untrain our dogs -- so it’s incredibly important that we teach those behaviors that we want, throughout the day!


When a new dog comes into my home, I’ll set up little “formal” sessions (maybe 5 minutes each, 3-4 times per day) to help him become acclimated to how we do things… otherwise, I just reinforce things as they occur. These ultra-short, frequent sessions allow dogs to learn A LOT of things, in a very short period of time – and, it allows the entire training game to remain just that… a GAME.


How Much Reinforcement?


Many people are concerned with how many treats their dogs get in a day, for many reasons. So:


1) If it’s not a health concern, don’t concern yourself over it. If he gains a pound or 2, he’ll take it off later. He’s not going to be training forever. Really. {grin}


2) If it IS a health concern, use his meals as treats. Yes, that’s right {grin}… just don’t give him his food as MEALS. Instead, use his meals to provide reinforcement for his training. This way, you won’t be adding anything to his diet that may be potentially hazardous to his health.


The rate you use to reinforce will affect the rate with which your dog learns. In the early learning phases, the rate of reinforcement should be relatively high – about once per second. As he becomes consistent in his responses, you can start to reinforce less and less often, and then only use treats when “brushing up” a behavior, or teaching a new one.


What Kind of Reinforcement?


This depends on what your dog loves. The easiest way to start, of course, is in the use of food treats – I don’t use store-bought doggie treats, unless they’re the very good ones (few preservatives, high real meat/cheese content).


I prefer to use “human” foods… cheese, hotdogs (all-beef only), leftover chicken or steak, popcorn, etc. It’s best to find several food rewards that your dog loves – and it’s important to understand that rewards/treats will have different “values” under different circumstances. In a low-distraction setting, you can get away with Cheerios and popcorn -- less messy stuff. In high distraction, though, you'll want to bring out the Big Guns: Messy Foods Taste Better. {grin} And, I still want Kraft to do peanut butter, limburger cheese, and liverwurst in those squeeze cans. How cool would THAT be?? lol


For example, in my house, with no distractions, popcorn is a big treat for my dogs… but, in the yard, with a dog across the street, popcorn has no value – I’d better come up with something better, if I want their attention!


As you progress in your training, you can use other forms of reinforcement: toys, petting, praise, chasing squirrels, other dogs, etc… but, at the outset, food rewards are more convenient, and easier to control.


Where to Put the Reinforcement? {grin}


This isn’t as simple as it sounds… because if you keep the treats on your person all the time, then the dog will never learn to Trust In The System Of Reward. You’ll end up with a dog that only works when you have the treat-bag. So, to teach this trust, you must become creative… sometimes the treats are in the fridge, sometimes they’re on the table, sometimes in the treat-bag, sometimes on the mantle… you get the picture. {grin}


Who Can Train Your Dog?


Everyone in the family! I’ve had kids as young as 6 or 7 years learn to use the clicker effectively. The only person who shouldn’t be training a dog is someone who becomes angered or nasty. In fact, your dog will learn even faster, with more people working with him! It’s best, of course, that only one person be in charge of the clicker at a time (don’t have 3-4 people standing around, clicking him at the same time {grin}).

Brenda CCBC


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