Tucker is my Labrador puppy. He's stop-dead-in-your-tracks handsome. Really. Cars have pulled over to tell me how handsome he is. Spend some time with him and you find out just how sweet and calm he is, too. He' so calm, people can't believe it. ("That's the calmest, lab I've ever seen. Golly Jed, come over here. Do you see this sweet puppy. He's real different from my daughter's lab. Is it the same breed?"
Now, not much of this is my doing. I just haven't messed it up. This past September we got Tucker from Highgarth Labradors (Kate Fulkerson). Kate is a wise lady and an innovative breeder. She clicker trains her pups right after whelping. She keeps the pups with their littermates for fourteen weeks. She does LOTS of other innovative things and all of these things gave me a great pup to begin with.
Now, can you imagine the pressure I am under to have an extraordinary dog? Here I am, I work with Karen. I'm president of the company. People might even assume I have a lot of experience training dogs. Wrong. Whoa. Hang on. Although I've been studying the principles of clicker training, and I have been practicing with people since I joined Karen at KPCT, it wasn't until my youngest child turned six that I wanted to bring a puppy into the house. So, let's face it, I have "pedigree by association" but I am a beginner clicker trainer.-(but wow, I am a lucky beginner with so many wise teachers in the offices next door!)
As a beginner I have had some real "Oh, so that's what I should be doing" moments when I went from theory to implementation. Along the way, I kept jotting down things that I though I would want other people to know -- especially stuff that I simply missed or didn't realize until I really started doing it!
Here are the first few....
You are going to reinforce a lot! I mean A LOT... more than you think you would when you read about clicker training. When you are training, clicking and reinforcing is the mode of communication - so just plan on doing it a lot and don't worry about overdoing it. When I started loose leash walking Tucker at 4 months I would click and treat him 100 times in our ten minute walk. Really, 10 times in a minute. or once every six seconds (on the average)! What about weight gain? I just subtracted what I used for treats from my pup's regular diet
Raising Criteria: The "Must Have" Skill
You aren't going to be stuck at that rate of reinforcement for life, because you'll learn to raise and shift criteria so the dog has to do more, and longer, for each click and treat. What a core skill! At ClickerExpo Steve White said that this was THE skill that tripped people up. I agree. This is so important. When I wanted Tucker to learn to sit quietly on the floor at home, I clicked and treated him every 5 seconds at first. Now we're up to 15 minutes. He'll just lie there for an hour in the same spot, waiting, as long as I give him a reinforcer every 15 minutes or so. You have to learn how and when to raise your criteria (or lower them). It takes some practice. Jump in there and start practicing.
Basic Theory: Don't Leave Home Without It
Learn the basic theory. Don't assume you know it. There are several times when, uncertain about what the outcome would be, I fell back on some part of operant conditioning theory to help make my decision.. (I used the books.) (Or I just turned to my in- house experts). But in either case, a basic grasp of the theory is important. It helps you think through what is happening or why it is not happening and how to problem-solve.
Live in The Learning Moment
This isn't some new age mantra. It's just that just about every interaction with your puppy is a learning opportunity. Sometimes I learn, sometimes he learns, sometimes we both learn. For example: If I give a come cue and he doesn't respond, I've learned that he doesn't know that cue. Now what do I do? Well, for one thing, I have to make a decision not to use that moment to teach "come or else!". Instead I might decide to go get him and to save the real learning for later. What has he learned from this episode? Maybe nothing. But it's what he didn't learn that also matters. He didn't learn that he earns a reward for NOT coming. He didn't learn that the consequence of getting something wrong (who knows what?) will result in something unpleasant.
Second, you must come to recognize that good behavior is a very important learning moment, always! This is so important, I'll say it again. Always reward good behavior! It is so unnatural for us to reward everyday good behavior for dogs or anyone else. Work to drop that point of view. Throw it away! Hey, Tucker, did you come by my feet and sit down even if I didn't ask for it? Click, treat. Did you lie down in the kitchen quietly even when I didn't ask for it? Click, treat. Did you look at my sock but not actually put it in your mouth and run around the room? Good decision! Click, treat. If you miss these moments you are not really clicker training as powerfully as you could be yet; and so you are slowing your own and your pup's learning! [
Ok... I got that off my chest. I have a few more. I'll wait and see if anyone thought this was helpful!
Aaron Clayton & tucker [at] clickertraining [dot] com (Tucker)