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Start the New Year on the Right Paw—with Clicker Training

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Here we go again

There's nothing like a new year to inspire a fresh start with goals and resolutions. Need to lose 30 pounds to make it easier to get around the agility course? This is the year for it. (True, the last five years have also been the year for it, but this year is different—really!)

New Years Eve Dog

I'm someone who enjoys making New Year's resolutions. Whether I keep them past January is a closely-guarded secret, but, nevertheless, every December I enjoy looking back on the previous year, taking note of my accomplishments, and planning the next year's resolutions.

As I review my past accomplishments, I'm particularly proud of graduating from Karen Pryor Academy, earning my TagTeach™ primary certification, and starting my own business. I'm not sure what all of my new year resolutions will be, but I do know that one of my resolutions will be to address some behaviors that I've let slide with my dogs.

Resolutions with, and for, the animals

Yes, it's true—my three Aussies aren't perfectly trained. Finn's excitement is out of control when guests arrive, and Ryder will chew through shirts, jeans, or coats to get at any treat I've inadvertently left in a pocket. (The old guy, Linc, is quite well-behaved, and, at 14½, spends a lot of time sleeping.)

There's a simple cure to Ryder's pocket shredding: don't leave treat-filled or even treat-scented clothes where he can reach them. Finn, however, needs training to learn a calmer greeting routine. For the most part, his wildness has been easy to ignore, since I don't have many visitors. But when I do have guests, talk about losing credibility as a trainer!

This year, I have resolved to teach Finn to go to his mat and stay there when visitors arrive. He's pretty good with the "go-to-your-mat" part of the behavior, but not so good about staying there when he is faced with distractions. I've started a training plan to very gradually work up to distractions like a knock on the door, the door opening, and visitors entering.

Thinking about my training plan for this project, I realized that it's probably easier to achieve success with New Year's resolutions using clicker training principles: start with a plan, use positive reinforcement, raise the criteria in small, achievable steps, track progress, and work on one aspect of a behavior at a time.

Make a plan

Trainers have better success with training goals when they create a plan to guide them to the desired behavior. Whether you're training a behavior as complex as going to the refrigerator and bringing back a bottle of water, or something more simple like a high five, it helps to have a plan. Without one, training can become haphazard, and trainers are more likely to skip steps or go off on a tangent that might make it harder to achieve the final training goal.You're more likely to be successful with a plan.

So while cleaning out 20 years of junk from the attic is an admirable resolution, you're more likely to be successful with a plan. Write down when you're going to have the garage sale, how you're going to sort through five boxes of stored CDs and cassette tapes, and who will help you bring the green plaid sofa down the stairs.

Use positive reinforcement

Clicker trainers understand the importance of providing frequent rewards to training subjects. These rewards—properly marked and timed—drive success. Without the rewards, our animals lose interest and wander away.

Similarly, if you neglect to reward yourself while working toward your New Year's goals, you also risk losing interest. Giving yourself a reward for achieving small steps increases your likelihood of continuing.

You would never punish a dog, and you should not punish yourself for a hiccup in your resolutions either. Instead, remember these clicker training principles: ignore errors and focus on reinforcing the behaviors you want to increase.

Not working out as often as you'd planned to? Figure out a way to reward yourself after each workout instead of plotting a punishment system for the days you missed. Thankfully, just as the rewards for animals don't always require food, neither do rewards for people!Just as the rewards for animals don't always require food, neither do rewards for people!

Raise criteria in small, achievable steps

Shaping a behavior in a dog, cat, horse, or fish, you raise criteria in small, achievable steps. I know that Finn will go to his mat readily and stay there without distractions, but I'm not convinced he'll stay on the mat when he hears a knock at the door. So that's where I'll start—with a single, soft, knock on the door. I'll gradually increase the criteria until he can stay on his mat when visitors enter.

Gradually raise criteria with your New Year's resolutions, too. Eight years ago, I decided to take up knitting, and my first project was a complicated long-sleeved sweater design. Today, I still have many skeins of beautiful Irish wool, but no hand-knit sweater. This year, I think I'll take that yarn and knit a simple scarf. When that's complete, I'll build on my skills (raise my criteria) to knit a pair of mittens, or another easy project, before making another attempt at a sweater.

Train one aspect of a behavior at a time

Shaping a behavior, you know to train one facet at a time. For example, to train a dog to lie down on cue quickly, you first train the down behavior and then add speed. If you want to add duration, you work on that separately as well.

One of my resolutions this year is to improve my agility handling skills, and I'm going to use that same principle. I have particular trouble with some (actually, most) of the footwork needed to navigate the course. Because I know to train one aspect of a behavior at a time, I will practice the steps and motions slowly and carefully, and work on speed later.

Track your progress

At Karen Pryor Academy, we learned to track our rate of reinforcement for each training session. That data tells us exactly how the training plan is progressing. One of our first KPA assignments was to teach our dogs to lick their lips on cue. I struggled with this behavior, but when I evaluated my data, I could see patterns that helped me figure out what might be the problem. Looking at the data also encouraged me, because it showed progress when I was sure I was not making any. The result? Finn licked his lips on cue at our first assessment. Success!Log your own progress with New Year's resolutions to see whether you are on track with your goals.

Log your own progress with New Year's resolutions to see whether you are on track with your goals. Looking at the data you record can help you make necessary modifications and ensure success.

For example, if you've resolved to arrive at work on time each day—an especially important resolution right now—try keeping data that includes the time you left home, the time you arrived at work, and any other factors that might have influenced your commute. With that knowledge, you can start to make adjustments in your routine that allow you to arrive earlier.

"...and a Happy New Year"

Now that I'm going relying on clicker training rules with my New Year's resolutions, I think I'll have greater success. I'm confident that Finn will soon have a visitor routine to impress all of my skeptical guests.

I've also decided on one more resolution to solve the pocket-eating issue—this year I resolve to pick up my clothes.

Happy New Year to you!

About the author
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Jane Fallander is a writer and dog trainer in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Jane is a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner (KPACTP ) and has been training dogs for 30 years. She currently shares her home with three Australian shepherds, each one sillier than the next.

great article

Jane,

This is a great article and a good reminder to take baby steps with the clicker training.  I am new to it and have seen great positive behavior changes in our 6 month old Britany.  She is so eager to learn and loves the training (and of course treats that go along with it). If I can keep everything into perspective (the small steps) we will have better success.  Thanks for the reminder/reinforcement on how to help achieve our goals.

Anna Williams

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