Helen on August 3rd, 2012

Charging a marker, whether it is a word like “Yep,” a clicker or other sound, a flashing light, or even the point of a finger is easy and essential.  Doing it prepares a dog for the next step: responding to a marker when learning behaviors.  I will explain the process with a clicker as my marker of choice, but you can substitute the marker you chose to use.

Take the dog to a place in the house that is quiet.  Have treats at the ready, in a bait bag or take a hand full from a nearby bowl.  Keep the treats out of sight.  If in your hand, keep your hand closed and still by your side or behind your back.  When your dog is nearby, click.  As soon as he looks at you, feed him the treat.  Repeat this five times, but make sure you are doing this at variable time intervals.  Not every 5 seconds, for example, but 5 seconds, then 60 seconds, then 30 seconds, and so on.  Then walk a few steps away.  Your dog should be intrigued and follow.  Again, click, and when the dog looks at you, give him the treat.  Repeat this five more times.  What we are establishing is the link between the sound and the immediate reward of a food treat.

Once the dog is aware of the connection between the clicker and treat, your marker is charged.  You can now use it for training behaviors.

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Helen on July 31st, 2012

When training a dog using motivation and reinforcement what two one-word questions do you think your dog will  be thinking?  I’ll give you a clue.  They start with W.

Why and What.  If your dog were to talk, those would easily be his two one-word questions to you whenever you go to train.  And the answers are the trainers responsibility and so is the success of a training session.  So be sure you know the answers before you partner up with Doggy for a lesson.

Question one:  ”Why?”  Why should your dog do what you’re asking?  Because he wants to please you?  That answer is as outdated as bell bottom pants.  Here’s a secret. Dogs do what pleases them.  Just like the rest of us.  Dogs eat, sleep and drink.  They also crave attention, play, and interaction.  The answer to the why question, then, is to use what your dog likes to motivate him to action.  Is what you bring to the training session motivating enough to create interest in your dog to partner up and pay attention?  ”Why should I?” says Doggy.  Because, Doggy, I have cheese, chicken, your favorite treats, or whatever yummy thing you love ready to reward you because you’re special.  That’s why.

I was teaching my own dog, Dudley, to pull a ball backwards using his two front paws.  Training was going along so-so.  He was getting it, but he wasn’t excited.  I’d answered his “why” with dog food roll.  The activity was hard and his muscles were getting a workout.  Muscles he hadn’t used in quite that way before.  After 5 or 6 sessions of only getting a few pulls on the ball before bailing, I changed treats.  I cut up some chicken meat.  What a difference that made to Dudley.  My better answer to his “why,” had just increased his motivation 3-fold.   Be sure to match the task to the reward.  The harder the work, physically or mentally, the better the answer to your dog’s “why” should be.

Question two:  What?  What behaviors do you want Doggy to do?  Once you have Doggy’s motivation at the ready,  be sure that what you want him to do is clear.  Teach a dog in increments that make it easy for him to succeed.  If your dog walks away from you, but otherwise would eat the training treat, then what you’re asking of him is too hard.  Break the behavior down into smaller parts and build it back up.

For example, when teaching a dog to do a down stay, start out with the down, and standing in front of the dog, take a step to the right and back again. Reward the dog.  Do that until your dog can stay at least 4 times out of 5, and increase the steps to two.  If your dog can stay 4 times out of 5 for two steps, increase to 3 steps.  Continue doing this step by step, until you can walk around your dog.  If the dog gets up, calmly reposition him and start from where you left off.

Training is a step-by-step process, and when you have your dog’s two questions answered before you start to train, why (why should I do this?)  and what (what should I do?), then you’re well on your way to  setting the foundation for a great training session.  The main thing is to enjoy your time training your dog, and make sure he enjoys it too!

Helen on March 7th, 2012

This hurts.

Giving a chomper treats is painful.  My dog Raven needed to take a step back in training for me to re-teach her how to take a treat with ease.  So I stopped training the behavior we were working on, and for a couple of sessions, we worked on taking the treat in a polite manner.

I wiped some chicken fat on my palm, and offered her my palm.  When she licked it, I clicked and gave her a treat off the palm of my hand.  I was working fast to get the palm licking to merge into licking the treat up.

Once Raven licked five times in a row, just before she licked my hand, I’d say “Easy,” and clicked.  I quickly put a treat in the same palm and said, “Easy.”  If she came at me with anything more than a lick, I folded my hand and moved it away.  After a few seconds, I tried again until she took the treat with a lick after I said “Easy.”  We practice several sessions, until she got the hang of it.

As we moved back into training regular sessions, when she got excited, I would remind Raven to take treats politely with my cue “Easy.”

The main thing is patience, perseverance and consistency.

Helen on October 7th, 2011

When training with a clicker, the sound of the “click” marks the moment the dog executes a behavior the trainer is seeking.  That sound communicates to the dog he succeeded and will be rewarded.

Every time a trainer clicks, she must give the dog a treat.  The click is the secondary reinforcer, which announces the treat, which is the primary reinforcer, is to come. If a trainer accidentally clicks at the wrong time, it’s important she still give the dog a treat.  To keep the clicker “charged” and meaningful to the dog, the click must always be paired with treating.

If a clicker isn’t handy, or not preferred, a sound or a word can be used.  Some trainers click with their tongue.  Others use a word as a behavior marker.  A word comes in handy when a dog is at a distance and the trainer needs volume.  A trainer can have as many markers as she wants, as long as the dog is taught the sound or signal is a behavior marker.  A treat always follows the marker.  Always.  Without the pairing of the treat to the marker, the marker becomes meaningless through classical extinction.

When selecting a word, one that isn’t normally uttered should be chosen.  I used YES when I first started, but found YES came out of mouth more than the times I wanted to mark behavior. So I faded YES and added another marker word, YEP.

A one-syllable word is the best choice as a marker.  Being able to say the marker word fast to capture the behavior is imperative.  Words such as “beep,” “great,” and “right” are one-syllable words which work well.  Two-syllable words such as “super,” and “bravo,” and three-syllable words such as “fantastic” are too long for markers.  Unusual one-syllable marker words work best.

When training multiple dogs, another behavior marker that comes in handy is the pointing finger.  When a dog in a group is doing something exemplary, and a trainer wants to reward that behavior, pointing at that dog is a fine way to distinguish who gets the reward.  Pointing is also a good marker for dogs who are deaf.

No matter what behavior marker you use, remember to charge it first, and when you use it, always follow it with a treat.

Helen on October 4th, 2010

Let’s face it.  A piece of steak is going to get a trainer more attention from a dog than a piece of kibble.  And this is good to know.  Having treats at different levels of desirability is a good thing to work with when training a dog.

When working on a behavior that’s difficult for a dog to learn, getting and keeping a dog’s complete concentration will be a little more challenging, and that’s when the steak-level treats are brought out.

For example, when working with a dog to step onto a skateboard, that board will have some movement to it, which is a challenge to some dogs.  That’s when the steak or other top-level treat should be used.  A dog’s paws hit the board, click and treat with that steak.  That treat is so good, the dog wants to stay on board for more.  Guess what?  That’s when kibble comes in.

To get the dog off the board, toss a piece of kibble.  He’ll fetch the morsel, while you reset for the next trial…with steak.

Having a variety of treats available when training a dog is an important component of reward-based training.  So keep a variety on hand and plan on which ones to use ahead of your training time.