Updated: Feb 27
“You would be fascinated to know the science behind why the way you train works.”
This statement is why I am a clicker trainer. It was said to me by a visitor to the ranch who was here shopping for donkeys. She is an accomplished clicker trainer. She was talking about watching me train, as I described with Rosie in the “Awful Dog” resource guarding blog below.
Foolishly, I resisted her suggestion to learn clicker training for over a year. I looked it up today because I have chosen to write this blog. Had I listened to her sooner, Rosie would have been trained as per the training plan I will present to you now. It’s a shame I waited so long.
I have been a positive reinforcement trainer as far back as my mind will go, particularly as my understanding of how to communicate with my animals progressed. But positive reinforcement training can only go so far because it does not empower the learner; marker training gives animals control, which in turn builds their confidence.
The blog I am going to write here is in specific response to the blog link below. It’s likely to be long and complex. It will most assuredly be full of behavioral science, which is the sugar high for me. So be forewarned.
Resource Guarding Is Not a Dirty Word #2- But What Do You Do If the Dog Is Really Awful??!!:
From the blog above, here is the story of Rosie:
"Rosie was eight weeks old when she came to me for training. I should mention that there are two “Rosie” pups I have written about. This Rosie came to me in 2018; the second Rosie came to me in 2019. There are a lot of videos of the training of the second Rosie. OK, back to this first Rosie.
This Rosie was purchased, at eight weeks of age, to be partnered with a nine-month-old male pup I had, named Armani. Cute little Rosie was a terror!
Armani had never encountered a canine terror and was completely confused by her. In Rosie’s early transition to the ranch, her default response to new situations was to go on the offense – in very obvious ways! Armani’s response to this energetic, opinionated little dog was to give her space when she asked for it, which was generous of him, but when she claimed both her dinner and his own, he had to make some choices."
But what about Armani? There are two dogs struggling in this story. Yes, I know that all the pups will go to new homes and that transitions are tough on them, but with the training I now know I could have done a much better job of supporting Armani, so let’s take a look at that.
This photo of Armani playing with his brother was taken less than a month before Rosie arrived. This is the life Armani had. Then Marquis went to his new home, and Rosie arrived at the ranch. Even back then I knew that placing single pups was not OK with me. I had a prospective home for Armani that I liked the sound of, but didn’t have a partner for him. His buyer allowed me to purchase Rosie for Armani, bring her to the ranch for training, and then deliver both dogs to her. That was a good plan. Rosie and Armani are still in that home and are much beloved, happy dogs. But these early days were hard on Armani. Take a good look at his body language in the photo below. To me, Armani looks lost and scared.
What do you see in this photo?
I know that the fastest way for an LGD to feel confident in a transitional setting is to figure out what the new job is and go to work. That is what Armani is attempting to do here. I can’t tell by looking at the photo if he was content in his new job at this point, or if he is in the early stages of that, but I can tell you what I see in Rosie.
Not only has Armani lost the support of his peer, Marquis, but he is also now faced with a confrontational pup. I am not sure if I ever used him as a mentor dog, so he may never have seen a young pup before, and this pup is certainly not offering to be his partner. If she were, she would be traveling beside him or behind him, not out front at a three-quarters angle.
Armani could have used some control and confidence in his life at this time. I would know how to do that for him now, but I didn’t then. I was as kind and sensitive as I knew how to be with both dogs, and that was all I had to give them at that time because this was B/C – before clicker!
And now, back to my training plan with Rosie at that time:
The first time I fed these two dogs, I placed two bowls of food on the ground, about 20 feet apart. Rosie ran back and forth, from one bowl to the other and back again, snarling. Armani ran to the back fence and stayed there. I was unsuccessful at getting him to eat all the rest of that day, even when I removed Rosie. He was shocked, and somewhat traumatized, by her behavior. Remember, this is my carefully cultivated, calm around food, nine-month-old dog. So, the next time I fed these two, I went forth armed with a training plan.
I took a chair out to the pen where I would be feeding Rosie and Armani. I then put Rosie on a short leash. I carried both bowls of food out to the pen. With Rosie on a leash, with me, we set Armani’s food down. I told him he was a good boy (yes, this is your dinner, and I will protect you) and quickly removed the now noisy Rosie from the proximity of Armani’s bowl. I took (somewhat dragged, in truth) Rosie to my chair and set her bowl at my feet. Then I sat down in the chair and waited.
She barked, she growled, she jumped in the air, and she did crocodile rolls. She did everything but eat. In her moments of calm, such as between snarls when she had to take a breath, I told her she was good. When she did behaviors I didn’t want to see more of, I said nothing to her.
When my still somewhat worried Armani finished eating and walked away from his bowl, Rosie and I, with her still on leash, went and picked up Armani’s bowl. Then, still together, we picked up Rosie’s bowl of kibble. We put both bowls away. I took the leash and collar off of Rosie, told her she was wonderful and left.
Both dogs were a little confused by this new feeding situation, and no, Rosie did not choose to eat that first feeding. She won’t starve. Training is important. The next time I fed, both dogs were ready.
We followed the same plan at the next feeding opportunity; I was feeding the dogs twice a day. Rosie, now more motivated because she was hungry, and more savvy because of the experience of the previous feeding, ate a few bites of food, in-between bouts of snarls, growls, and crocodile rolls. She gave me more opportunities to reinforce her good behaviors because there were more of them.
Over the course of a few days, the growling and crocodile rolls diminished and then stopped altogether, but Rosie would still have been willing to steal Armani’s dinner, so the leash stayed on and I sat in my chair. I began to attach a cue to Rosie eating kibble: chewing, “go eat,” “good girl.” After about a week, I could unsnap the leash from her collar mid-way through her meal, then at the beginning, then just feeding her while holding the leash in my hand, then no leash, then no chair."
Take a look at that first paragraph and think about how much anxiety those dogs must have been feeling. I could have saved both dogs from all of this, and here’s how.
The first step should have been to feed Armani where he was comfortable until I had a better handle on Rosie, and he was more familiar with her. For Rosie, I would figure out how to feed her in a way that made her feel safe. I would look for an area on the ranch that felt neutral to her. That might have been a small pen or even in a stall. I would have stayed with her as she ate, from whatever distance away from her that she told me she was comfortable with. This would provide me with a big opportunity to begin to bond with this dog.
Next, I would create a “clicker dog.” This is a dog that understands that the sound of the clicker is the promise of a reinforcement, and that the click happened because of his behavior. In essence, the dog has learned that he can make me pay him by offering me behaviors he knows I like. This gives the dog power! It is the most significant piece of what I did not know how to provide both of these dogs. Armani was B/C too.
I would have worked with these dogs separately until they understood what the click meant. Then, if working with them together helped to build their relationship, I would train with them together. If training with them together created confusion or competition, I would go back to training separately.
Now, you may be thinking that what I am proposing to do will be time-consuming, and complicated, and you may be thinking about how much else you have to do today. But then, watch these two videos, and think about Rosie and Armani as described in the first paragraph above. Think about the joy you see in this pup in the video, who is, by the way, Rosie #2. Armani’s experience of learning to be a clicker dog would have been much the same, but it would have been faster for Armani because of the relationship I have with him.
In the first video, I am delivering treats, for the first time, to this bouncy shark of a pup. Look at the time stamp on the video to check out how short a time it took her to figure this out. She learned to take threats gently, and what body position was likely to produce treats. This sets the stage for capturing this behavior with the clicker.
In the second video, I click Rosie for behaviors she has just learned that I like. Watch her closely, and you’ll see when she begins to get a glimmer of understanding that she can make me do things. Power! Yea pup!
These two videos are portions of my very first training session with Rosie #2, who was also eight-weeks-old and was a very similar pup to Rosie #1.
Now that I had the beginnings of clicker dogs, I would broaden my criteria for clicking. I would click for eye contact, being near me, walking away from me, following me, and the list goes on. The lesson is that good things happen when I am around and that the dog can make me pay her.
Just to be clear, for the dogs, it isn’t all about the food; it is about control. And the food is not bribery. Bribery happens before the behavior, not after.
For Rosie, I would begin to work with her while she is wearing a leash and collar. I would not use the leash to restrict her movement or direct her in any way because clicker training is all about choice, but I would want her to be comfortable with what is coming next, which is using the leash as a safety line.
Here is where I come back to most of the training choices listed in paragraph #2, with a couple of changes. I would first feed Rosie far enough away from Armani that he didn’t trigger her. I would C/T for eye contact, calm behavior, for looking at her bowl, and of course, for eating. These are all shaping points toward the finished behavior of calmly eating out of her own bowl. All treats delivery would be a treat at a time, tossed in her bowl rather than being fed out of my hand. I am using these pieces of the finished behavior to build my goal of a dog who will calmly eat her dinner. This works! Shaping is powerful stuff!
I hope it is obvious that having created this relationship with Rosie, I would have a lot of her offered attention. She would not feel the need to growl, jump in the air, or do crocodile rolls. I could make myself more interesting than Armani. She would not feel frustrated because if she showed me that, I would immediately change the circumstance until she showed me she was comfortable.
After she finished dinner, I would pick up the bowl and probably just set it behind me in the chair. I would continue to C/T for a few more behaviors. I would do this for Armani too. He would come to join us on his own, or we would go to him. This is to teach the dog that there is reinforcement following a meal.
Over time, we would move closer and closer to Armani and progress towards ultimately taking the leash off, staying with her in my chair, etc.
This training would take far less time than I spent with Rosie #2, and not only is there no stress, but there is joy!!!
I wish I had known then what I know now…..but I wonder what I will know tomorrow!