Thursday, May 9, 2013

Clicker training takes over the world!

.....well, we think it would be amazing if it was the predominate method used to teach dogs, anyway. And RPB does its part to promote clicker training as a humane, effective method for teaching dogs new behaviors. It is our method of choice, what we use in our classes, and all of our foster dogs are clicker trained before being placed into new homes. One of our goals is to create a wide network of clicker-trained Pit Bulls - we call them Click Bulls ;-) - and Pit Bull parents who spread the word that positive, gentle training WORKS on even our big, burly, butchy dogs. Not only is clicker training a kind, progressive training method, it is also a new way of relating to the world at large. It fosters an attitude of patience, positivity and respect, as well as cultivates communication between species. It's truly a lovely way of interacting with and training your dog and has the power to positively impact our human world as well.

Clicker training: let's break it down! It starts with a small plastic "clicker". The clicker makes a fun sound that the dog learns to associate with food. In a very short time (usually only a few sessions of 5 minutes) the dog learns that "CLICK!" means "TREAT". (Training treats are small, pea-sized healthy and delicious foods that cannot be resisted. Bits of boiled chicken or liver, cheese, many natural dog training snacks that are on the market, baby carrots, Cheerios, anything the dog loves and is willing to accept as "pay".)


Once the dog begins to anticipate that a click means a treat is on the way, it's time to start teaching some new behaviors!

There are two ways to use the clicker to teach dogs behaviors - 1) the dog is "set-up" for success. We create an environment where the behavior is likely to occur (i.e. a quiet room with minimal distractions) and wait for the dog to perform the behavior or some approximation of that behavior. For instance, let's say we want to teach the dog to SIT. If we are hanging out in a boring room, where nothing interesting is going on, we can wait for the dog to get bored and say, "Hey, what gives?! Let's do something!" and happens to SIT. Once the dog SITS, we click and treat (toss the treat so the dog gets up, and then wait for the dog to sit again - watch how fast that dog is sitting like crazy waiting for clicks and treats!)

IMPORTANT! CLICK first ALWAYS, then offer the treat!

Concept: Click = GOOD JOB, that's RIGHT! and Treat = PAYDAY!

The second way to use the clicker, is to use your body to gently guide the dog into position. A food lure in your hand is the most common, efficient way of using your body to get the behavior to happen. A small piece of food, held in your hand, lured over the dog's head (close to his nose) so he sits, followed immediately by a CLICK then treat, is one way to teach a SIT with the clicker.

After the dog "gets" what he's supposed to be doing (i.e. SIT = ka-CHING! payday!) you can start cuing the behavior - saying the word SIT, THEN clicking and treating. The next steps involve working on the behavior in various locations, teaching the dog that he won't get paid after EVERY single performance of the behavior, but that he WILL always at some point get paid, then weaning the dog off the clicker.

Clicker training gives you a way of efficiently communicating with your dog. Once your dog knows what the clicker means ("Good job!") you can effectively use it to "talk" to him. It is also a hands-off method. We can teach complex behaviors without ever having touched the dog!

People might be surprised at how fast clicker-trained dogs learn, how eager they are, and how much fun they seem to have while engaged in training sessions. One reason clicker-trained dogs pick up new behaviors so fast may be explained by the relationship between the click and the oldest part of the brain, the amygdala. From,"Research in neurophysiology has identified the kinds of stimuli—bright lights, sudden sharp sounds—that reach the amygdala first, before reaching the cortex or thinking part of the brain. The click is that kind of stimulus. Other research, on conditioned fear responses in humans, shows that these also are established via the amygdala, and are characterized by a pattern of very rapid learning, often on a single trial, long-term retention, and a big surge of concomitant emotions. The New York Times Sunday Magazine ran a cover story surveying this research in 1999."

Clicker-trained dogs are enthusiastic and willing participants in training because they are given choices (which creates a fast-learning environment as opposed to FORCING behavior), set-up to succeed in training, and provided with LOTS of positive feedback. They know immediately when they are doing something "right", provided with quick "pay" for a job well done, and allowed the opportunity to use their brains. Clicker training isn't about forcing dogs into position (where us humans do the work) or jerking them into compliance (imagine if YOUR boss taught you new tasks at work by pushing you around the office hallways all day, or smacking your hands with a ruler when you typed incorrect information). It's all about working WITH your dog, in a team capacity. You are both exploring, interacting, learning about each other. People who clicker train seem to get as attached to the clicker as the dogs do! It is an enjoyable, positive thing to do with your dog.

Clicker training uses positive reinforcement to teach new behaviors, fix behavior problems, and simply communicate with your dog. It fosters an attitude of trust between participants - there is no fear or intimidation involved in this sort of training. It focuses on the positive, what's RIGHT, instead of what's "wrong". This eliminates frustration and resentment, and "acting out" behavior. What would happen in our daily lives if we focused on catching each other doing something right? How about focusing on the good in the world each day, thanking the Universe for what you've been gifted with, instead of wasting emotional energy on what you hate about your life? The whole idea of clicker training is that by focusing on what's RIGHT, we get more of it; the "wrong" gets pushed out by default.

Before we end this post, let's talk a moment about methods that perpetuate the myth that Pit Bulls are "tough, aggressive, hard-headed, unresponsive to kindness/positivity and difficult to control": those that utilize prong or choke collars, physical punishment, and electric shock. Pit Bulls are intelligent, gentle, emotional dogs that do oh-so-well with training methods that are respectful of them as feeling, sentient creatures. Clicker training gives them the opportunity to learn and perform behaviors without threat or coercion. It is a respectful, KIND method of training that doesn't hurt the dog OR the image of the breed - it showcases just how intelligent and EASY to control Pit Bulls are. Harsh methods that rely on pain to train showcase only the unwillingness of the trainer to expand his or her mind and extend compassion to a weaker creature that is at the mercy of the human at the end of the leash.

This post is only a very basic introduction to clicker training. Although this method of training is remarkably simple, it has endless applications and this post should be seen as only a brief glimpse into the world of clicker training. A gateway into that world is Karen Pryor's Karen Pryor is the pioneer of clicker training and her site is THE source to begin your journey into clicker training. Please go have a look around her site!

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