Sunday, September 23, 2007

Teaching Clicker and Target

Dog Training: Clicker
Flyball Box: Target

"Click and treat, click and treat! I got something good to eat!"

If one is involved in dog training in any fashion, you are going to hear the term "Clicker Training". It is a popular way to refer to classical conditioning.

Clicker training is simply a way to use positive reinforcement to illicit a desired behavior. The clicker portion pinpoints for the dog the moment the desired behavior occurred. The learning takes place when the dog displays the desired behavior in order to receive the positive reinforcement. The reinforcement comes when the dog actually displays the desired behavior. Reinforcement can come in a variety of "rewards" such as food or toys. It could simply be play interaction with the trainer.

Before you can use the clicker to pinpoint desired behavior, you must teach the dog that hearing a "click" is a good thing. For this introductory lesson, it is desirable to have a hungry dog. Do this just before feeding time. Take a portion of their kibble or, if you do not feed kibble, bite size pieces of cheese, hot dog or liver. Have these tidbits right at hand. Bring in your "student" and have your clicker in one hand, the treats within easy handling of the other. Now, click the clicker and if the dog reacts to the sound indicating that they heard it, give your dog a treat. Click the clicker, treat the dog. Before five minutes have elapsed doing this over and over, I guarantee that you will have a dog looking for a treat at the instant they hear a click.

It only takes two or three short click and treat lessons to condition your dog that the click is desirable and means "food". Now what? We use the clicker to pinpoint desired behavior and the "food" reinforces this desired behavior.

In the case of "target", we take a round piece of plastic or heavy cardboard or paper to use as our target. The lids used to seal coffee cans work excellent or you can cut out part of a disposable plate to use. It doesn't matter. You simply want a size that is small enough for you to handle easily but large enough for the dog to see and identify. Hold the target with a treat under your thumb. Your thumb should be on top of the target so that the dog can see and smell the treat. You should hold the treat firmly under your thumb so that the dog cannot get the treat unless you release the pressure of your thumb. Present the target with treat to your dog. You are looking for any moment when the dog tries to use their feet to get at the treat under your thumb. At the very moment your dog paws at your thumb "click" your clicker and release the treat to your dog. It may take a minute or more for this first attempt. Do this 5-10 times in a row. It is still the same "click and treat" lesson from above but, we have raised our criteria to only rewarding the dog when the dog touches the target with their paw.

Repeat this lesson two or three times a day for two or three days in a row. At some point, offer the target without hiding the food. If your dog touches the target without seeing or smelling the treat as a prompt, make sure you click right away, go heavy on the praise and give the food reward to your dog right away. Since the food is not under your thumb, your dog will have to wait a moment or two before receiving it. That's fine for now. You are teaching that the click is what the dog wants and the treat simply reinforces that the click is something good.

Every two or three days (depending on your dog's ability to learn) raise your criteria for reward. If you click for one foot on the target, later click for only two feet, not one. If you click while holding the target, try putting the target on the box and clicking when your dog touches it away from you. Also, gradually increase the time frame between the click and the treat. Eventually, you will click your dog a few times before giving the food reward. You will reserve a large food reward or "jackpot" for a particularly complex behavior that your dog succeeds at learning.

Once you have your dog touching the target wherever you put it, you need to teach your dog a swimmer's turn on the box using the target to tell your dog where his feet should go. DO NOT use the target over the hole! This is a common mistake that first time flyball trainers make. The hole must present the ball to the dog. The dog won't try to catch the ball if he has been conditioned to put his feet there! The target should be placed (taped) to the box slightly below the hole and towards the center of the pedal. You should determine which way your dog turns before this lesson. Refer to the previous article, Which Way Does My dog Turn?" before putting the target on the box. If you still aren't sure exactly where on the box the target should go, try box judging at a tournament. While you are judging, observe where the best turning dogs put their front feet on the box. It will vary according to breed and size but it should give you the general area you should be teaching your dog to put his feet on the box.

You want the dog to jump on and off the box rapidly. Stand on the side of the box next to the lane in the direction your dog turns. Encourage your dog jump on the target and then back towards you. Be picky about when you will click for this behavior. Use your hand or a toy to guide the dog onto and then off of the box. Do not reward "double stepping" or you will have a dog that double steps on the box all the time. This causes bobbles, loses time and defeats the purpose of the swimmer's turn. You want a clean jump onto and off of the box. Eventually, your dog will learn how to approach the box so that he is always in position to catch the ball and push away from the box simultaneously!

See you at practice!


Cynthia Blue said...

Hrm... interesting. I am looking for how to train the box with a brand new dog. Found your post.

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Susan said...

Do you have any suggestions on how to teach a dog to catch the ball from the box. In my case my dog started out not able to catch anything out of the air. I ended up teaching him to catch food when thrown to him. He is getting better about that, and working his way to catching the ball reliably (he's at about %50 now), but hasn't yet made any attempt to catch the ball from the hole. Any suggestions of exercises would be greatly appreciated.

Cynthia Blue said...

When you put the target on the box... won't the dog just touch the target with both front feet? How do you get the back feet up there too for the swimmer's turn?

............Chris said...

That will depend on how you set the dog up for this exercise. Now that you have asked the question, I can see that I haven't really addressed the problem of setting up the dog. How 'bout I answer that in my next post? (......since there are at least two ways I know how to do that! :)

Cynthia Blue said...

Thanks I will look for that post!