Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Not guilty!

We’ve received a few questions in the Dempsey mailbag about what “clicking and treating” means, so I thought I’d say a few words about our training method.

It’s actually quite simple. Dogs love food. When a dog gets food for something it does, the food is called a primary reinforcer. The problem is, it takes a while to get the food out to treat the dog, so you may not be reinforcing the right behavior when you give him food. To get around this, we add a “secondary reinforcer” that’s quick. In this case, it’s a clicker. When we click, we mark a behavior as treat-worthy and let the dog know that food is on its way. The dog will start doing things to earn a click.

While this is simple in theory, it’s a bit messier to apply in the real world. There’s the question of shaping, for example. When we click, we “capture” a behavior. But what behaviors need to be captured to turn a tail-chasing puppy into a door-opening dog? The intermediate steps aren’t always obvious.

Clicking can also be tricky if, like me, you’re slightly uncoordinated. Not that I’m a total klutz – I mean, it’s been over three months since I’ve poked my eye with a chopstick – but it requires some coordination to handle a leash, a treat, and a clicker, while watching the puppy and reacting quickly enough to click the right behavior. Here’s an example from a couple of weeks ago.

Dempsey and I had just come in from a potty break, and we were playing a nice game of Wubba fetch. Suddenly, without warning, Dempsey began to squat. What?!? Pee time again???

Blinded by (among other things) a desire to maintain my streak of one (1) accident-free days, I dove forward to scoop Dempsey up and take him outside. Now, I usually pick up Dempsey from behind when he starts to have an accident, but in my haste I picked him up from the front. As you parents of baby boys can probably guess, the inevitable happened: I redirected the stream from the floor into my eyes.

Still determined, I blindly lurched forward with Dempsey in my hands, knocking over the stool that had been holding Dempsey’s clicker and plate of treats, sending the treats skittering onto the floor. I thought I heard the treats fall on the right, so I stepped left – directly onto the clicker. Click!

By the time I reached the door, Dempsey was pretty much done, and his pee was dribbling weakly onto my wrists and down my arms. I was all wet, so I put Dempsey down to survey the damage. Instead of a neat little puddle, there was now a line of drips stretching to the door. The stool was overturned, treats scattered everywhere in the living room. Bailey was still sitting on the back of the sofa, smirking. “Hey,” she said, “It’s your puppy.”

Dempsey was sitting politely by the door, wagging his tail in expectation of the treat I had promised with the clicker. In his mind, he had done a very good thing. A deal’s a deal: I gave Dempsey a treat. Fortunately, with clicker training, it takes a number of repetitions before a behavior is learned, so Dempsey hasn’t tried this treat-worthy behavior since. Whew!

For reasons I think you can understand, I did not take a picture. Instead, I thought I’d share one of my favorite cartoons by Charles Barsotti, which I think about whenever Dempsey does something cute but exasperating. (Since I’m borrowing the image, I feel compelled to say you can purchase a copy of it here.)

Puppies may do these things, but not Helping Paws dogs! We still have a lot of work to do.

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