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Clicker Training! Practice It With An Easy Animal Before You Use It With Your LGD

This is me, with two adolescent Sarika x Milan pups. Road trip!

This was shared with me this morning; shared here with permission. These are the words of an experienced animal trainer, now completing the KPA Foundations course as a prerequisite for bringing her new LGD puppy home in a few months. Her pup will spend a few months in training with me, so I will have the good fortune of working with her with her pup.

“Exciting! Oh, I'm really looking forward to learning with you! I thought you might find this interesting.

I am trying to learn some Portuguese phrases for my upcoming science expedition in the Amazon. I am tone-deaf and have always struggled with languages. A good friend who is a Spanish teacher went hiking with me this morning, and we talked about learning languages. She said that most people rush to implement (speaking/writing) but that first you have to have comprehension (listening, reading). And trying to do both at the same time can be confusing and slow your progress.

Something in my brain just clicked, and I thought this is exactly what Karen Pryor and Cindy are trying to do. Encourage comprehension through reading and listening to your dog before trying to implement new behaviors. And rushing to implement before you comprehend is sure to confuse and frustrate everyone!! It just suddenly made so much sense! I'm not sure if this rings true for you, but I just wanted to thank you again for providing an opportunity to learn and comprehend this new language with an LGD before rushing in. :)”

For as much as I love this course, and I truly do, if I wrote my training manual now my instructions to students would have the following cautions.

Most people don’t reach out to learn how to train dogs because they woke up one morning with this new life dream. Typically, they are living with a dog that they strive to better understand. Usually, push comes to shove when the dog starts to come up with behaviors the humans find tough to live with. If their dog is lucky, the owner will find this course and complete it; the owner is looking for a way to solve problems, to fix things.

The Karen Pryor Academy is a marketing entity. Right or wrong, it is absolutely true that most dog owners won’t do this hard work of completing a dog training course. If the task seems too difficult, the owner will move on. KPA cares about dogs, so part of the way they package their educational offerings reflects this understanding. Humans are also impatient – they are looking for results! Learning something new is challenging, and can be a little off-putting. Being told to use a stupid piece of plastic to do so is even tougher to accept, or at least it was for me. So, at some point, the student wants to test-drive these new KPA clicker tools. Is it worth it, this new methodology, and all this time I am investing?

Knowing that humans need proof quickly, KPA provides “Training Activities” for the student to practice with. Well, I have a couple of thoughts to share with you about this.

This course was written for the typical owner of a companion dog

Because of this, and how resilient and forgiving companion dogs are, doing a little novice clicker training with a pet dog is pretty safe, for the dog’s future, as well as fostering the owner’s confidence.

OK. What if this course was written for a brand-new, novice tiger trainer? If this were so, in no way do I believe KPA would suggest you go out and practice these new tools with a tiger because the potential consequence to the tiger is so great. A tiger that comes to distrust humans, or avoid training opportunities, has a shorter life expectancy and a lower quality of life. In zoos, husbandry practices need to be accomplished with animals every day; this is called “cooperative care” when an animal can be taught to voluntarily participate in his care. Examples of this would be nail trims, dental exams, and even voluntarily participating in getting an injection the animal knows is coming.

But what if that tiger isn’t going for this; he says “no” because of what he learned from this novice trainer? The tiger can move away, he can choose to distance himself from what he perceives as a threat. And then, the veterinary staff would need to get out the dart gun and accomplish their task with greater risk to the animal.

Owners often feel they have enough relationship with their dogs that their training goals are fair and realistic. They may even feel the dog owes them something. This is still believed by a surprising number of people. Unlike the tiger, the unfortunate dog is likely to find himself wearing a leash and collar in an effort to make sure he participates in the training session. Here’s what I think: Yes, it is possible to control a dog’s body, but when I train, I want the dog’s mind. If I have his mind, if I have his eyes on me, and what I have to offer is reinforcing to the dog, he will come right to me, seeking our interaction. In my world, this isn’t a training luxury – it is essential. I will settle for no less. The dog always always wins. My challenge is to figure out, over and over, minute by minute, how to be more enticing to the dog than what he was doing before I showed up with my new plan.

The course starts out by presenting “Capturing.” This is simply marking and reinforcing a behavior a dog is doing all on his own. I think of it as saying “thank you.” Saying thank you is seldom wrong.

Then it goes to “Shaping,” in which a probability of behavior happens by reinforcing tiny pieces of a complex goal behavior, incrementally raising criteria. This is a lovely training tool that I use every day of my life with my dogs, but done poorly, it can frustrate and confuse a dog. A companion dog can handle more of this than an LGD can, although he shouldn’t have to. This just means that the trainer has the responsibility of understanding how to use this tool well before doing so with an LGD.

Think about how you feel when you train your dog. Is your heart involved? Can you imagine what success will look like for both of you?

Now, picture chasing this same successful outcome of training with an animal who could not care less about how you feel. THAT is the right kind of animal to practice new clicker skills with. Chickens are phenomenal for this purpose. If there is food around, they will stay. If not, they will go on their way with no hurt feelings. For the trainer, working with a chicken is humbling! I highly recommend it!

Don’t fix things!

As an early student of clicker training, you are indeed the student, giving the animal you are working with the opportunity to earn reinforcement as you learn from his response.

Clicker training is a pure language of the scientific principles of positive reinforcement. What I wish the course spent more time on, and certainly what I should have written more about, is the significant consequence of having aversive elements present in any clicker training session.

Animals do behaviors for two reasons; to gain something, or to escape/avoid something. How aversive something is experienced by the animal has a lot to do with the ethology of that animal. The course suggests you train in an area free of distractions. Moving a companion dog from one room to another is probably not a big deal to him, but taking an LGD away from the area he manages is aversive #1. Putting a collar on him is aversive #2; a harness may be experienced as slightly less so. Attaching a leash is aversive #3; a long-line is less so. Add to this the consideration that a trainer only ever has 50% of an LGD’s brain to train with because they are always working, always multitasking. Doing anything that makes it more difficult for an LGD to do his job adds stress because it is aversive.

How are you feeling about the word “aversive” at this point? Grrr. I hated it! I felt like there was an “aversive” hanging from every tree! To find that so many of the things I have done with dogs over my many years were possibly aversive to the dog just breaks my heart. For a little bit, this was so true that thinking of training scared me enough that I avoided doing it.

But, here’s the deal. The expert at all of this is the dog. The task of the human is to become thoroughly educated about the ethology of dogs – what they care about and how they learn – and then carefully observe the behavior of the dog and make changes as needed. This is very possible, and it is possible to make most mistakes be speed-bumps, rather than crashes, but it is MUCH more difficult to do this all while mastering this new clicker skill.

Any behavior a dog is doing has value to him, so in asking him to change his behavior, you’d better have something reinforcing to offer him instead.

Do me this favor, please

Get all the way through the content of the course before you attempt to use clicker training with your LGD. Practice on all sorts of other kinds of animals. Try clicker training a human – with neither of you using language, hints, or other ways to add instruction.

There is no need for you to become a perfect clicker trainer before you work with your LGD, but the cleaner your training skills are, the more enthusiastic your LGD will be about it. Using capturing, done off-leash and with the dog having the full ability to leave you, probably won’t get you in trouble. Just smile, no matter what you think about your choices, and pay the dog. When in doubt, pay. When you click, pay. Get a fistful of treats, and rapid-fire, click, and pay all you have in your hand in about 20-30 seconds. Then take a break.

Patience is required, have a little faith

My study of behavioral science has profoundly changed my life, and the more I learn, the hungrier I am for my next lesson as I continue as a student of my dogs.

The KPA Foundations course is very well designed. The science presented in it is solid, and absolutely applies to LGDs. My training manual was written to provide a road map of how to apply the course to a valuable life with an LGD. Take your time, as you read the online coursework. Use my blog posts library. You will see many occasions, on video, of clicker training being done with a vast variety of LGDs. If you have questions, reach out to me.

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