What is a beginner clicker class? Is it an ordinary six-week long basic pet owners' obedience class, with clickers added?
I don't think so.
This month our website features an important article by Kathy Sdao: "Are You Clicker Training, or Training with a Clicker?" Kathy describes ten differences between the two.
To me the most important difference of all is #9: Clicker training, Kathy says, is a way of communicating with an animal, using a universal language that animals understand from the start. "Control of the animal's behaviors then flows as a byproduct" of that communication. (As do a lot of other things, such as the animal's much improved ability to communicate with you.)
Kathy goes on to say: "Behavioral control, however, is the principal goal of standard training. Communicating with the animal is the means to this end."
This is a big fundamental difference. Most regular dog classes reflect that goal. Control behavior: stop behaviors A, B, and C and be able to command and get behaviors X, Y, and Z. Period. Communicate, sure, with leash, gesture, voice: but just to control. In a clicker class, we should be teaching people to use the tools of communication that this methodology provides. If the people know the method, learn how to click, the dogs will come along just fine; and furthermore the people can get all the behaviors they want, not by recipe but by communication tools.
First big complaint: "Oh, but beginners are too clumsy, they can't handle the leash, the clicker, the treat, the dog all at onceâ€¦"
Right. They probably can't. So our job is to clicker train those skills. Help them practice. In her ClickerExpo sessions on teaching clicker training, Kathy Sdao has devised some wonderful exercises for increasing the necessary manual dexterity to click and treat rapidly.
Or, separate the tasks. Can you set people up so they just have one thing to do at a time? Tether the dog; that way, no one has to hold the leash. Give the clicker to one person and the treats to another, and let them practice on one person's dog, and then swap dogs and tasks and practice on the other person's dog.
That's what TAGteachers call "BID," or Breaking it Down. What other ways can you think of to break down the mechanics of a high rate of reinforcement so everyone can get good at it in ten minutes?
Now, think about this. We advocate a high rate of reinforcement for beginner dogs; what about beginner people? We should be using clicker training principles to teach people, too. When I'm demonstrating in class I carry a Clicker +, set to my favorite sound, the "ping," to mark successful behavior on the part of the people while they are clicking their dogs. I might ping a specific stated point ("Click when the dog's nose approaches the target") and ping people for improvement as they work on the task. Or, I might just ping people by surprise, for attitude, for laughing, for helping someone else, for any behavior I see that I like. Do you give the people treats? I might, at first, but soon just the feeling of success is PLENTY of reward for adult humans. That's TAGteaching: it's a great way to shape behavior in people, and there's lots more useful information on www.tagteach.com.
What about the behaviors the dogs should learn? At the very beginning, it's important that the dog discovers that what he's doing is what made the owner click. If what he is doing is sitting still, and he was sitting before, during, and after he heard the click, how can he tell exactly what he got paid for? When training heel, how much easier is it if the dog is moving more or less alongside his owner and gets clicked every third step? His muscles learn, his muscles can repeat the behavior, and, in no time, he is "training" his owner to click, by walking close to her left side as she is moving, too.
But for beginners, forget sit, stay, and down—all these controlling, movement-inhibiting behaviors. They're hard to learn and hard to teach. Start with targeting to the owner's fist, and then moving around to touch the fist, or targeting back and forth between two people. Or, following a target stick, ending by following it under a chair or in and out of a box.
How about shaping? Shaping, without luring, leash-leading, or pushing the dog around, is the key skill for building communication with the clicker. Once the person and the dog understand that game, they can learn ANY behavior together. Everything stems from shaping. "Oh, that's much too hard for beginners." No, they learn it just fine. It's much too hard to teach only if you are used to teaching by verbal instruction, because shaping is a real-time, non-verbal process, like dancing. Explanations aren't much good.
So set them some easy capturing task—capture a head dip, a head turn, a paw move—and let them shape it into a bigger move. Clicks and treats for the dogs, pings, praise, and applause for the people. I've seen Virginia and Sherri teach a whole roomful of dog/person couples to capture, shape, and put on cue a paw gesture (high-five, say) in ten minutes or so. And everyone learned.
Who says every class has to build on the class that went before? That's a given in a standard class; in the first class or two you work on a short sit, a vague sort of heel, maybe a forced down, an on-leash come. In the second week, you extend the behaviors. And so on and so on. Forget it!
Emma Parsons devised a six-week beginners' clicker class for Tufts University Veterinary School in which the exercises, every week, were completely different. The learning goals were the same—and they were for the people: learn to use the clicker to mark behavior; learn to reinforce at a high rate; learn to observe and capture small moves or brief attempts and shape larger responses from them. Learn to let the dog work it out, rather than trying to shove him through it each time; learn to leave behind any urge you might have to correct mistakes, and instead, catch and click success.
The first week, they did some basic on leash stuff. The next week was "A visit to the veterinary," with examination tables, students taking turns playing the vet, and dogs moving from one station to the next, getting clicked and treated for pretend ear exams, for being lifted on and off the table, for pretend nail trims and so on.
The third week, everybody tried some agility obstacles, set very low and easy, just for fun. The fourth week was aggression week: exercises for meeting, approaching, and passing other dogs politely.
Tricks. Tracking. Trading dogs. Every week was different. What happened?
One man dropped out: he did not want to train other people's dogs, or let them train his. The rest of the students came more and more reliably, often showing up early and staying late. In six weeks the students were all skilled and versatile with their clickers. The dogs were all focused, enthusiastic, and attentive. "Bad" behaviors such as jumping, bolting to the end of the leash, sniffing the ground, and concentrating on the other dogs had disappeared. Nobody felt guilty over not doing homework between classes—because there was no homework. No one noticed they were "practicing" when they clicked their dog at home for some good move. They came to class with new tricks or skills to show off, every week, things that hadn't been mentioned in class at all. No one was complaining about their dog's "problems." Everyone was bragging about his or her dog, and rightly so.
And just in case you think, "oh well, vet students, they were already pretty dog-savvy"—they were just like any other beginner class. Andâ€¦while some of the dogs were pets, some were not. With permission from the vet school, many of the students had been allowed to use laboratory beagles—adult animals raised for research. They had never been out of a cage in their lives. I recall that one of them, when first carried out to the training field and placed on the grass, was so overwhelmed that he fell over.
At the end of six weeks, all those beagles were normal, and all were clicker-trained. So were their people.
So—if that's a good "beginner" clicker class—what's your plan for the next level?