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Click for Success!

I thought I'd write a short blog today about clicker training, and why and how I use it in my training. I know many people can find it frustrating- it sometimes feels like we need 5 hands to be able to manage everything competently! However, like most things, it is a skill that needs to be developed- you don't expect to get on a bike and be able to ride, and turn, and signal, and be aware of other road users all at the same time, do you?

Last summer I decided to check my skills by being assessed in "clicker competency" by submitting evidence for the Clicker Trainers Competency Assessment Programme. This required me to;

  1. demonstrate five behaviours with my dog

  2. meet fourteen different criteria that demonstrated various training abilities.

Required criteria:

  1. Handle food rewards safely and efficiently.

  2. Deliver food rewards from hand or pocket.

  3. Deliver from a reserve kept off the handler.

  4. Operate the clicker in either hand with a non-visual movement.

  5. Give reasons for their choice of reward.

  6. Attach a verbal cue to a behaviour without supporting body language.

  7. Give a cue without excessive body language or unnecessary repetition.

  8. Have taught the dog to respond to the cue without excessive hesitation.

  9. Use a target stick or target hand, clicker and rewards and deliver food effectively.

  10. Have taught the dog to focus on the target and respond promptly to the target cue.

  11. Give the click appropriately to effectively communicate the rewarded behaviour.

  12. Withhold the click to gradually extend the duration of a behaviour.

  13. Deliver the reward with fluency and good timing to encourage further learning

  14. Free shape a behaviour that is interaction with a new object without giving the dog assistance from verbal or visual cues.

The criteria can be seen, with more details about the assessment, here:

This was a surprisingly rigorous exercise, which forced me to think hard about how to demonstrate all the above- and also made me examine where I can improve.

Five Behaviours

To meet the required criteria I had to think about five behaviours, which demonstrated;

Six repetitions of the same behaviour, using a hand or verbal cue (or both)

Six reps of a different behaviour, ONLY verbal cue

Six reps of a different behaviour, with variable duration

Six reps of a developing behaviour using a target

Shaping a new behaviour

For the assessment, I chose hand touch, a sit stay, "sleepy", a recall loop, and a paw touch on a target. Can you figure out which one met each behaviour? And bonus points if you can figure out what criteria each of these met! Happy to say, me and my fabulous partner Toffee passed with Distinction.

When I was a language teacher, "scaffolding" of learning was crucial. I couldn't just walk into a classroom and start speaking a foreign language at native speaker speed and expect my learners to understand me. I would have to think carefully about what I wanted to communicate, and how to scaffold- i.e. break down into small stages- that information in a way that the learner was able to understand. I would then check understanding in different ways, and then start to remove support, once I was confident that learning had occurred (and there is a key difference between "teaching" and "learning"!). The same principles apply when communicating something new to my dog- they don't understand what I want, so how can I break it down into manageable slices of learning, so that we have success? How do I then assess that learning? (also, notice that I don't say "test"- because that brings in a pass/fail element- here I am checking where my dog is on a scale of developing knowledge). Using a clicker (or a reward marker word) helps support my dog in understanding that what they are doing is what I want (and, conversely, if they don't hear that sound, then it's an indicator that it's not what I want). Getting your timing right so that the correct action is rewarded and reinforced- if you get it wrong, then you could be accidentally rewarding something you don't want (for example, pawing a dummy rather a mouth on the dummy)- there are so many elements to clicker training!

Clicker training- for me- helps highlight if we are meeting criteria or not- both me and my dog. In the activities above it's very clear whether or not my dog is understanding what I am communicating to them. Additionally, it shows me what stages are stronger- visual v verbal cues, proofing behaviour (i.e. making sure the dog understands it), putting duration and distraction on a behaviour, setting layers into the training so that my dog is set up for success- but also knowing when to start removing those layers to ensure a "clean" behaviour (removing hand signals, adding in the verbal at the right time etc). So, my challenge to you is go and take a look at that link to Kay Laurence's website, and see if you can work your way through the criteria list with your dog, and see where you might need to develop your skills too ;)

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