Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Clicker Training Part 5: Adding Verbal Cues

So far you've been training and playing games with your dog using just the clicker, and we hope you've been having fun and bonding with your dog! If your dog can solidly perform behaviors with the clicker, it's time to introduce a verbal cue.

A verbal cue is different from the clicker. The verbal cue indicates that you want your dog to perform a certain behavior, while the clicker simply marks a behavior as it is being performed.

For Unknown Cues

If your dog is unfamiliar with verbal cues, start by choosing a behavior that your dog is familiar with. To introduce the cue, wait until your dog starts to perform a behavior, then give the cue. Click the instant he performs the behavior. For example, if you want to introduce the "sit" cue, say "sit" as your dog starts to lower his back end. As soon as his butt hits the floor, click and treat. Repeat this process, gradually saying "sit"earlier until you're giving the verbal cue before your dog starts to sit. When your dog will sit after hearing the verbal cue, gradually fade out the clicker and treats.

For Known Cues

If your dog already knows a verbal cue, you can reinforce it with clicker training. Start by saying your dog's name clearly, then give the verbal cue. Click and treat when your dog gives you the behavior. If your dog doesn't give you the behavior right away, don't continuously repeat the cue. You'll sound like a broken record to your dog, and you may just confuse him. Instead, wait about 10 seconds, then repeat the cue once. If your dog still doesn't give you the behavior, change something - redirect or move your dog. Then try again by saying your dog's name and giving the cue.

Our next post will be on generalizing behaviors so your dog learns to give behaviors in any environment.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Clicker Training Part 4: Clicker Games for You and Your Dog

These clicker games will teach your dog to think and experiment with different behaviors. The ability to think and experiment is a skill we highly prize when we're training service dogs. When a dog is paired with a partner, he will need to continually learn about his partner's environment and needs. Some of our service dogs even teach themselves new behaviors!

We hope you enjoy playing these clicker games with your dog!

Guess the Object
Get your dog to touch an object using only the clicker to cue him. First, choose an object. It can be anything your dog can touch. Remember to start small, so at first, click your dog for anything he does, other than sitting or laying down. You can click and treat for looking at the object, or even just standing. To keep your dog moving, you can throw the treats on the ground instead of delivering them from your hand. Gradually work up to clicking your dog for touching the object.

Kick the Can
Do you remember playing this game as a child? Now you can play it with your dog! Put a paper or plastic cup on the floor. Using the clicker and treats, get your dog to knock over the cup with his nose and then knock it around the room. You can use some of the same techniques you used in Guess the Object to get your dog started.

Dog in a Box
Get a cardboard box that's about 3 inches high. If you need to, cut the sides of the box until they're about 3 inches. Put the box on the floor. Your goal is to get your dog to put his front paws in the box. Start by clicking him for just looking at the box. Next, click him for going near or walking past it. For this game, you should toss treats on the floor to keep your dog moving.

101 Things
This game is more advanced. You're going to click your dog for interacting in any way with an object. The catch, however, is that you can only click him for new or different behaviors. For example, if your dog gives the object a soft nose touch the first time, click and give him a treat. Don't click him again until he does something different than a soft nose touch in the same spot. (You could click him for a hard nose touch, a soft nose touch in a different spot, etc.) Remember to think small and only click for different behaviors. If your dog gets stuck, try throwing treats so your dog has to approach the object from a different angle.

We would love to hear your stories about clicker training! Do you have any clicker games you like to play with your dog? What clicker training tips do you have to share?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Clicker Training Part 3: Tips for Training Your Dog

SSD Gideon watches his handler, then turns his head and looks away. Click. He immediately turns back to his handler and receives a treat. Now, standing and watching his handler, he tries to figure out what behavior got him the click. He cocks his head to the side, still maintaining eye contact. No click. He turns his head to the side and breaks eye contact. Click. He turns back for his treat. This time, he immediately turns his head to the side and looks away. Click. He gets another treat.

In this illustration, SSD Gideon, one of SSD's demo dogs, quickly learned that turning his head and looking away gained him the click and subsequent treat, and he learned this behavior without any cues from his handler other than the clicker.

SSD uses clicker training, and we've been very successful with it. Not only do we have fun with it, but the dogs have fun, too! Clicker training becomes a fun game for them - a game where they learn the good manners and behaviors that make them great service dogs.

So far in this series, we've talked about training yourself in clicker training before training your dog. We've shared several exercises you can practice to help you master treat delivery and timing. Now you're ready to try clicker training with your dog. We'd like to share some of the techniques that we use when we're clicker training our dogs.

Start Small
When you first start clicker training with your dog, think small. Chose a behavior your dog will probably do on his own, such as sit or come. Start clicking the instant he performs that behavior and give him a treat so he associates the click with a treat.

Keep your clicker training sessions short, about 5 minutes each. You know how your mind starts to wander during a long lecture and you stop learning as much? A similar thing will happen with your dog if you try to clicker train him for one long sesson. Break it up and work the short, 5-minute sessions into your daily routine. You dog will learn more and have more fun doing it.

Build up to the complete behavior. Click and treat for small movements in the right directions. You don't have to wait for your dog to give you the complete, perfect behavior before you click. Let's say you want your dog to lie down. Start by clicking any movement your dog makes toward the floor and gradually work up to a full down. After a while, when your dog is voluntarily giving you the full behavior, start asking for more. For instance, once your dog gives you a full down, make him stay down for a few extra seconds before clicking. This way, you can shape the behavoior.

One Click Is Enough
When your dog successfully performs a behavior or a small movement in the right direction, make sure you only click once. Don't click multiple times to show how happy you are with your dog. Remember, the click is a neutral sound and is not the reward - that's what the treats are for. The click simply marks the behavior the dog was performing and indicates that he will receive a reward for that behavior. Clicking multiple times to mark one instance of a behavior may confuse your dog and he may lose confidence in the clicker. Each click must mean exactly the same thing every time - that the dog has performed a desirable behavior and will now be rewarded for it. You'll be much more successful with your clicker training this way.

Time Your Clicks
You may have practiced timing your clicks using some of the exercises from Clicker Training Part 2: It's All About Timing. Now it's time to use those skills when you're clicking your dog. Make sure you time your clicks during a behavior and not after it. If you're looking for your dog to sit, click the moment his back legs start to bend or the moment his butt hits the floor.

Above all, have fun! Clicker training is a great way to communicate and bond with your dog. Enjoy it!

If you're looking for even more information about clicker training, check out clicker training expert Karen Pryor's website: http://www.clickertraining.com/.

Next week, we'll share some clicker games you can play with your dog.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Clicker Training Part 2: It's All About Timing

We hope you had fun practicing delivering treats! Practicing the timing of your clicks is just as important, if not more important, than delivering treats. We've said that using a clicker is similar to using a camera - it captures a moment in a behavior. To make sure you're capturing the exact moment, you need to time your clicks to correspond with the behavior your want. Click too soon or too late and you may end up reinforcing a different behavior. Be sure to click during the behavior and not after it's completed. For example, let's say you want your dog to touch you with his nose. You should click the moment his nose makes contact with you. If you wait until after he moves away, you may be reinforcing not touching you - standing, sitting, or whatever the dog happens to be doing right after he touches you. Timing is essential.

Here are some exercises you can practice with a partner to work on your timing.

1. Many of our commands are based on actions we can see, such as sit, stand, come. This exercise will help you time your clicks based on actions you can see. You'll need a tennis ball or a ball that will bounce. Have your partner drop the ball from varying heights. Try to click the instant the ball hits the ground. Repeast the same exercise, only this time have your partner toss the ball into the air at varying intervals. Try to click when the ball reaches its highest point.

2. Sometimes, such as when we're training hearing dogs, the click will be based on physical touch. This exercise will help you time your clicks based on touch. Have your partner touch your arm at varying intervals. Try to click the instant your partner touches you.

These are not the only exercises you can do to practice clicker training. Some of our puppy raisers practice by clicking the behaviors of actors on TV. If you're going to try this, select a specific behavior, such as walking toward another character or picking up an object. For about 5 minutes, focus on watching for only that behavior. As soon as the actor performs it, click. To make this game even more fun, you can treat yourself with a piece of popcorn or snacks every time you click accurately!

Have fun practicing! Next week we'll continue with tips for using clicker training with your dog.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Clicker Training Part 1: Training Yourself in Basic Clicker Mechanics

Before you begin using clicker training with your dog, you should practice by yourself first. Clicker training is a skill that both you and your dog will need to learn. It's important that you know how to properly use the clicker to deliver cues. Remember, the clicker marks a specific behavior, much like a camera captures a distinct moment in time, and you need to learn to time your clicks to mark the exact behavior you want. If you train yourself first, you're much more likely to have success training your dog.

You can begin by practicing delivering treats - an especially important skill. The click and treat work together. The dog learns that the click means he did something you wanted him to do and now he's going to get rewarded. Once he learns that the click means he's getting a treat, he may start experimenting with different behaviors to try to receive a click and a treat.

Try these exercises to familiarize yourself with the motions of clicking and treating. You may want to practice these with a partner.

1. Get a treat pouch, some dry food and an empty cup. (If you don't have a treat pouch, you can place the treats on a table or somewhere your dog wouldn't be able to reach them by himself.) Practice reaching into the treat pouch, grabbing one piece of dog food and putting it in the cup. Time yourself for 30 seconds. Transferring one treat at a time, how many can you put into the cup in 30 seconds?

2. Now you're ready to add the clicker. Repeat the first exercise, only this time you must click before dropping the treat into the cup. Time yourself for 30 seconds. You probably have fewer treats in your cup now that you have to click first.

3. Get a piece of duct tape and stick it to your clothing within reach of the hand you use to treat. This time, you're going to practice keeping your hand still while you click. It's important to hold still while you're clicking, and you especially don't want to be reaching into your treat pouch while you click. Your dog will follow the most obvious cue that he has performed the desired behavior, so he will start using your hand as a cue rather than the click. You want to make sure he's paying attention to the click.

Keep your hand still on the duct tape. Click, then reach into the treat pouch and drop one treat into the cup. Return your hand to the duct tape. When your hand is still, click again. Time yourself for 30 seconds and count the number of treats in the cup.

You probably have even fewer treats in the cup this time. It takes much more concentration to keep your hand still while you're clicking. Continue to practice keeping your hand still until it becomes second nature.

4. When you're clicker training your dog, you may be delivering a lot of treats. To protect your hand from being accidentally nipped, you can give the treat with a flat hand. For this exercise, start by keeping your hand on the duct tape. Click. Pick up a treat, but this time let it rest in your flat or slightly cupped hand. Tip your hand to drop the treat in the cup. Move your hand back to the duct tape and repeat the process.

You can practice these exercises by yourself or with a partner. If you're just beginning to learn clicker technique, it may be helpful to practice with a partner who can make sure you're doing everything correctly.

Check back for part 2 of our clicker training series, about the importance of timing.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Clicker Training

Clicker training is a great way to communicate with your dog and provide positive reinforcement for desired behaviors. It can be fun for both you and your dog!

SSD recently held a clicker training class for our current puppy raisers and sitters, anyone interested in becoming a puppy raiser or sitter, and people receiving a service dog. Sixteen people attended the training!

In clicker training, you use a clicker to mark a behavior your dog has performed, giving him a treat after each click. The click tells the dog that he has done what you wanted him to do. The concept of using a clicker is similar to that of a camera - each click captures a moment of a behavior.

To be successful at clicker training, you must train yourself, as well as your dog. To help you learn how to use clicker training to communicate with your dog and receive the behaviors you want, we'll be running a series of posts sharing some of the basics of clicker training.

Check back next week for some clicker training exercises to help you use the clicker as a cue for delivering treats.