There's no place like home
It is so worthwhile, and so easy, to customize clicker training lessons for a family when the training takes place in their home. In that environment, I can see behaviors of both the family members and the dog that wouldn't show up in a class situation. I can keep the training consistent for the dog by helping each family member stay on track.
Getting Gigi out to play
During a recent lesson for a family of five, the mother revealed that the dog, Gigi, waits at the door with her, but barges out when her 11-year-old son Eric takes Gigi to play ball at the park. "Once Gigi sees the ball launcher, she goes ballistic," the mom told me. I suggested that we get the ball launcher. The mom predicted that Gig would go crazy, but she agreed to my request.
When Gigi saw Eric with the ball launcher, she yipped with excitement. After Eric clipped the leash on Gigi's collar, he turned toward the door, but didn't open it. He waited until the dog stopped barking and stood calmly at the door without bouncing about. Eric then opened the door a crack. When Gigi began to anticipate her favorite game of chase-the-ball, she jerked toward the door to nose her way out. Before she got to the small opening, Eric shut the door and waited for Gigi to calm down once again. Gigi saw that the door would not open while she jumped around, and she became still and waited.
Eric opened the door a little wider multiple times, opening it wider in very small increments each time. He closed the door if Gigi tried to barge through. He didn't shout, "No!" He didn't say anything. Words would only have confused Gigi. Eric also didn't pull on the leash. He let Gigi determine what her behavior needed to be for the door to open. Dogs will do what works for them.
Once Gigi figured it out, Eric could open the door completely and Gigi would wait until she was signaled to go through. Eric didn't use a clicker or treat during this part of the training—that would come later. The open door became Gigi's indication to quiet down.
Eventually, when Gigi consistently waited when the door was wide open, Eric added the cue, "wait." When she did, Eric opened the door and permitted Gigi to go through. Going through the door and outside became the reward; a food reward wasn't necessary at this point.
Soon Gigi no longer pulled to get out. She waited until Eric cued her to go through the door. The first part of the behavior was complete. Now it was time to teach the second part, which included a click and a treat.
Treats—and success for everyone in the family
By now, when Gigi saw Eric with the ball launcher she was relatively calm. Eric put Gigi on a leash. He opened the door and Gigi waited to be cued to go out.
Once out the door, Eric stopped and held Gigi's leash tightly until she stopped pulling, turned, and reoriented toward him, giving him eye contact. Eric clicked and treated.
From an adjoining room, I was able to coach Eric through each step of this training. After he practiced several times, his sister repeated the steps. It was a new, and positive, experience for the family to train gently with clicks and rewards instead of reacting to an out-of-control dog with yanks and yells.
What works? Negotiating within the family
In another lesson with a different family, we practiced a recall by having family members call their dog, Sonic, to them. Each clicked and treated when Sonic responded correctly. Aunt Elsa saw Sonic hesitate and cower a little before coming to her.
"Why did Sonic behave that way toward me? What treats are you using?" she asked the other family members. All of them were using the same treats, so they looked at me.
"Use a normal tone of voice," I suggested. "Do you notice how Billy calls Sonic?"
Billy used such an inviting tone that Sonic couldn't resist running up to him, tail wagging wildly.
I suggested that we play the game again. Again, Aunt Elsa sternly commanded Sonic to come, and again the dog hesitated before creeping forward. When I repeated my suggestion that Aunt Elsa needed to soften her recall, she said, "This is me. This is how I talk to Sonic."
It was pretty clear that Sonic responded to Aunt Elsa differently, even though she was using the same treats as Billy. If she were to soften her recall voice, I thought she'd find that he wouldn't be so hesitant. But during that lesson I was unable to convince Aunt Elsa to alter her demeanor. After the lesson, I e-mailed my post-lesson assessment to the mother in the family. In it I told her that I had tried to caution and influence Aunt Elsa, but was unsuccessful. Perhaps she would be able to talk to Aunt Elsa, asking Aunt Elsa why she thought Sonic went so willingly to Billy, but not to her when both were offering the same reward?
The very next lesson there was a marked improvement in the way Aunt Elsa approached Sonic, and a corresponding change in Sonic. Sometimes changes aren't immediate, but with the support of family members they can still happen.
The right tool for the job
A tool I've found very helpful with in-home training is an Excel spreadsheet that keeps track of the lessons and the behaviors. The Excel spreadsheet for each family is different, as it is geared toward the objectives of that family. Still, when goals are similar I can borrow from one spreadsheet to create another.
At the top of the spreadsheet in the first cell I list the training objectives of the family—cues such as "sit," "down," "stay," and "leave it." In the next cell over are the behaviors the family says the dog already knows (which often don't turn out to be real accomplishments, at least from what I can see). These two categories are important—we need to know what the dog knows. In our lessons we'll work on those behaviors so that the dog performs them on cue, anytime and anywhere.
The next few cells across the top include the lesson number, the date, and the time.
Side and middle cells—cueing, foundation behaviors, progress!
Along the side of the Excel spreadsheet are the specific individual behaviors we're working on. One cell is devoted to the clicker; often during lessons I need to remind families to keep the clicker hand still, or watch the dog's behavior so the timing is exact. Treats appear in another cell—a hierarchy of treats and the placement of the treats are important, and resetting the dog with treats can be helpful.
Cueing, too, has its own cell, since the timing of the cue, and choosing a clear cue that doesn't conflict with other cues the dog knows, helps the dog learn and respond quickly. And sometimes a family member thinks the cue is one thing, like a voice cue, when the dog is actually responding to a hand signal or body movement.
In a case where a family member can see that the dog is responding to a different cue than the one s/he wants to use, an easy correction is in order. For instance, if the family member says "sit" and also points at the dog, most likely the dog is sitting because it sees the pointed finger. If the family member wants the dog to sit on a verbal cue, then s/he must say "sit" and begin to fade the finger point.
The first time the "sit" cue is given, the person should point. But the next time the "sit" cue is used, the pointed finger should be curled under so that it's not quite pointing. Little by little the finger/hand should be withdrawn from the cue process until the dog sits given the verbal cue only.
When I list the behaviors that need work, I always include the foundation behaviors—following a cue, giving eye contact, targeting, settling on a mat, and offering a behavior. These foundation behaviors are the basis of all the behaviors we'll be working on. After those behaviors, I add the objectives the family listed in the pre-lesson questionnaire, as well as the behaviors they think the dog knows, but doesn't perform consistently.
Shaping and capturing behaviors also are included in separate cells along the side. I concentrate on teaching family members to shape and capture different behaviors, so that they learn how to train behaviors when I'm out of the picture. Finally, as each lesson proceeds I fill in the middle cells with "next steps" and improvements, so that we all see the progress being made.
I meant the Excel spreadsheet to be a quick way for clients to see how their dogs are progressing from week to week, but it has also turned out to be a great review for me, as it prevents the training from being too repetitive. The spreadsheet shows where I need to speed up the lessons, and where I need to include more variety, whether we're working on targeting, settling on a mat, or another behavior.
For example, if during the third lesson we are still working on the cue "settle," it's time to add a new criteria—the distraction of walking around the mat, increasing the amount of time the dog stays on the mat (duration) by 15 seconds before a release cue, or cueing the dog to settle from a distance of 10 feet rather than standing right next to the mat. All of this keeps both the dog and the owner focused.
After the last lesson in the series, I ask my clients to fill out an evaluation form. The best comment I have received was this one:
"I feel I can train my dog to do anything."
With the tools I share with them, my in-home clients gain both confidence and skill. They definitely appreciate learning what to do themselves in order to move forward with training. It's always better to receive, and learn to use, a fishing rod than it is to receive a fish outright—right?