A note from Karen Pryor:
Here is a fascinating account from a gun-dog owner, Clint Matthews, of using the clicker to help his three-year-old dog overcome a traumatic experience from puppyhood. The experience had created a pattern of fear—of the owner's truck, of being in the truck, even of stepping into the back hall leading to the truck. The fear was getting in the way of taking the dog hunting, the work he was bred to do.
Clint had already done a lot of fun-type clicker training around the house with his dog. Removing the fear was much more of a challenge. This project took the owner 15 clicker training sessions, of a few minutes each, over a period of weeks. At each step, Clint's main criteria were that the dog's tail should be up and the dog relaxed and happy. At each step, Clint assessed the animal's emotional response. If the dog showed reluctance or fear, Clint shifted some aspect of the training.
This ingenious trainer sometimes modified his criterion, settling for going halfway down the scary hall, not all the way. Or he changed the behavior that was being clicked, switching from going to a goal area to retrieving a toy in the goal area. He added distractions—turning the truck engine on and off remotely. He changed reinforcers, from food to better food to the JACKPOT where the dog was invited to go for a run with Clint's wife.
Brilliant success! Just read Clint's story and look at what you can do with a few principles, good timing, and creativity! I'm especially stoked to learn that Clint picked up his strategies from reading one book, my new Reaching the Animal Mind. It's all stories, not that much instruction. That worked for Clint Matthews—did it ever!
Problem: truck terror
Gus, a three-year-old German shorthaired pointer (GSP), is fearful of our truck. Gus shows undesirable body language (tucked tail, head lowered, and slinking movement) in the general vicinity of the truck and in the garage. He knows when it is time to go to the truck—when I go out into the backyard on Saturday mornings to take him to the truck, he shows the same body language. Gus especially dislikes the long hallway that leads from the kitchen to the garage because he knows the truck is right behind the door!
Until now I have had to use strong and forceful voice commands to get Gus to go to the truck and load. I was getting it done, but he wasn't happy about it. I tried many things to change his body language, such as not bringing him through the house to the truck. It was all trickery. But, there was no fooling him—as soon as he saw the truck and knew my intentions, Gus began to slink.
Desired outcome: fear-free truck travel
The goal was for Gus to lose his fear of the truck, loading into the truck with good body language (wagging tail, head and ears up) and without any coercion.
Techniques used: positive reinforcement-based clicker training
I chose to use the click and treat methods described in Karen Pryor's book Reaching the Animal Mind.
- Shaping an absence
Clicker, jerky treats, bowl of food (daily meal), remote starting key fob, rug, morning run, vehicle, packrat in a trap, favorite retrieving toy.
Gus at 15 weeks old.
I think Gus began this behavior the day I brought him home as a puppy. He didn't like being taken from his family and he moaned all the way to my house traveling in his kennel. Two days later I loaded him up and took him on a long drive to Sonoita for training. The upsets from these trips could have been avoided or managed better with a little help from the breeder, or if I had more knowledge, or if I had taken a slower approach. Gotta walk before you run!
Gus is no stranger to the click-and-treat method. We began using clicker training when he was 10 weeks old. Over the last three years he has developed a skill set that includes:
"Whoa," "Heel," "Come," "Leave it," "Find it" (find something in the general vicinity), "Outside" (go outside), "On top" (jump up onto anything I point to that is elevated), "Retrieve," "Settle" (lay down), "Room" (go to Clay's room), "Pool" (go jump in the pool), "Kennel," "Hold" (hold in his mouth anything I put in his mouth), "Toy" (go find your toy and bring it to me), "Over" (move over on to the shoulder and away from the road because there is a car approaching while running with Alison against the traffic).
It is extremely important to note that the following training steps were completed with very few verbal cues. Most of the time, the only noise would be the click. I only clicked when Gus offered me the desired behavior with good to neutral body language. He was fed only once per day, after the training session was completed in the evening.
Session 1: Teach Gus to target my hand
Put piece of jerky treat in my hand, made a fist, and clicked for touching my hand with his nose.
This step went extremely quickly. One five-minute session and Gus had it mastered.
Session 2: Move him around the house using my fist as a target
Using the same technique as in Session 1, I moved away from Gus and made him come to me and touch his nose to my fist. I went all over the house and he followed me anywhere. I stayed away from the "dreaded hallway to the garage," as I wanted him to master the cue without bringing him to the aversive location.
Session 3: Move him down the "dreaded hallway" using the target
Using the same technique as previous sessions, I started in neutral locations in the house and slowly progressed to the "dreaded hall" entrance. Next came one step into the hallway, then a couple of steps. I could get Gus to go halfway down the hall, but not to the end. I finished the session there, successful in moving halfway down the hallway. I made sure that we finished on a successful attempt.
Session 4: Get him to go to the end of the hallway using the target
Using the same techniques as the previous sessions, I started at the entrance to the hallway, and slowly progressed to the end of the hallway. This process took about five clicks. There was some hesitation. Gus paused and yawned a few times.
Session 5: Get him to go into the garage using the target
Using the same techniques as the previous sessions, I started at the entrance to the hallway and quickly progressed to the end of the hallway. As soon as I opened the door to the garage, Gus went through the door on his own, but his tail was tucked. He would not give me good body language no matter how patient I was, so he was not rewarded. I backed up the training steps and ended the session (successfully) with the door to the garage closed, just as in the previous session.
New approach, new team member
It was clear to me that I needed a new approach. I had just read about "using cues when clicks won't work" in Karen's book, and that sounded helpful. I also felt that it might be necessary to take myself out of the equation.
The next morning I witnessed a behavior I had never seen from Gus. I was home on a holiday and my wife, Alison, was getting ready for her morning run. She has an elaborate process of getting ready—putting on her running shoes, strapping her iPhone to her arm, and getting the leash for Gus. Gus watches Alison get ready by looking through the glass doors from outside. He whines as if to say, "Don't forget about me!" He loves his morning runs.
When Alison opens the back door, Gus, tail wagging, runs down the "dreaded hallway" and prances impatiently waiting for her to open the door to the garage. He has no fear! In fact, Gus is really excited. When Alison opens the door, he runs into the garage, past the truck, with his tail wagging. Ah hah! A light bulb moment!
I decided to try a two-pronged approach. First, I'd have Alison ask Gus to get into a vehicle in the garage before they go on the morning run. If Gus loads with a neutral or positive body language, then he gets to take his morning run. The second approach was to teach Gus a new target that was independent from me.
Alison accepted this new challenge and, of course, Gus loaded with no problems. Over the next few days, she lengthened the time he had to stay in the truck. This process helped me, as Gus learned that the truck s not a bad place—just a stopping point before the morning run. Gus was associating a good experience with the truck!
Alison followed this routine every time she took Gus on a run, three to four mornings per week. She moved on to asking him to get into the kennel while he was in the back of the truck. It became a habit after several weeks.
A real throw rug
I decided that the new target would be a small throw rug. The goal was to teach Gus to lay on the throw rug, and then I would slowly move the rug from a comfortable place in the house to the back of the truck. Using the rug gave us a place for Gus to hang out in the house (off the furniture and the carpeting) and it provided a bridge from the house to the truck.
Session 6: Teach Gus to stand on the rug
I placed a small rug on the floor in the kitchen and brought Gus in to let him wander around the kitchen. I clicked and treated with jerky when Gus looked at the rug. Clicked when Gus moved toward the rug. Clicked when Gus sniffed the rug. Clicked when Gus stepped on the rug. Clicked when Gus put all four feet on the rug. After every click, Gus came to me for his treat.
Session 7: Teach Gus to lie on the rug
Using the same technique/location/props as the previous session, I clicked when Gus stood on the rug with all four feet. He came to me for a treat, and then he ran over to the rug again. I didn't click.
This was the first time I used my voice. I used the command "Settle" while Gus was standing on the rug. I clicked as he settled. I used this command only once to show him what I wanted. He came to collect his treat, and then he ran back over to the rug and stood.
I didn't click and I didn't speak. Gus yawned. Then he sat down. I clicked. He came for his treat, and then he ran over to the rug and sat. Again, I didn't click. Gus lay down halfway and tentatively. I clicked. He came to collect his treat, and then he ran over and lay down with confidence. I clicked. We did this three more times with success.
Session 8: Teach Gus a visual cue for lying on the rug
I set up the same environment and brought Gus into the house. He was focused on me. I pointed to the rug. He saw it and immediately ran to the rug to lie down! I clicked and he came to collect his treat. Gus made a move toward the rug and went back to lie down. I didn't click, but turned my back and walked away.
Gus followed me. I turned around and pointed to the rug. He made a move to the rug and lay down. I clicked. He came over to me to collect his treat. And he stared at me! I said "Rug" and pointed to the rug. Gus ran and lay down on the rug. Click!
He had it! We did this three or four more times. I had progressed further than I thought I could. We were successful in associating a verbal cue as well as a visual cue.
Session 9: Use the new target to move Gus down the hall
In this session I moved the rug to the entrance of the hallway. I gave Gus the verbal and visual cue for the rug and he performed the behavior flawlessly. Click and treat. I moved the rug down the hall and closer to the door in 3-foot increments with a series of clicks and treats and finished up with Gus performing the behavior at the end of the hall.
Session 10: Using the target, have Gus lie on his rug near the truck
This time we moved to the driveway behind the truck with the garage door open so Gus could see the truck. We started 20 feet from the truck and I asked him to lie on his rug. In a succession of 3-foot increments, I moved Gus from 20 feet away to a place just behind the truck. It took about 6 click-and-treat combinations to achieve this.
I got greedy. I opened the tailgate and placed the rug on the back of the tailgate. Gus put his front feet up on the tailgate! I clicked and treated. His body language was neutral. We ended the session right there!
Session 11: Using the target rug, have Gus lie on the rug on the tailgate
We began the session with the rug on the ground behind the truck. Gus performed the behavior with neutral body language. Click and treat. I then moved the rug to the tailgate. Gus put his front paws on the tailgate. I clicked and treated. I gave him the command again. He put his front paws up again. I didn't click. Gust put his feet back on the ground and just stood there. I decided to help him. I gave him the "On top" command. He jumped up onto the tailgate. I clicked and offered the treat. Right now, I didn't care about his body language. He made progress.
Gus didn't take the treat and wanted to get down. I let him. (Pressure on, pressure off.) I walked him away from the truck for a few moments. We then moved back toward the truck and, without a command, Gus jumped onto the tailgate with neutral body language. I was ready and clicked as he left the ground. I offered the treat; Gus didn't take it.
THIS WAS A BREAKTHROUGH MOMENT. Gus offered behavior that I wanted without coercion or even a command.
Gus wanted to get down and I let him. We walked away again. We turned back toward the truck and I gave him the cue. Gus jumped onto the tailgate with neutral body language again. I clicked just as he picked his front feet off the ground to jump up. I offered his entire food bowl as a jackpot while he was on the tailgate. This time, he ate!
Session 12: A training day in Sonoita. The goal was to get Gus loaded with neutral body language
In the morning I noticed that I had trapped a packrat in a live animal trap the night before. I let Gus smell the rat in the trap and let him follow me over to the truck. His attention was solely on the rat. I put the trap in the back of the truck and Gus jumped into the truck to get at the rat. He even walked around the bed trying to get a better look at the rat. He had positive body language. I asked him to get into the kennel and he did, willingly.
Session 13: Have Gus in the bed of the truck while the engine is running
This session began the same way as Session 11. This time, instead of putting the rug on the ground, I opened the tailgate to put the rug down. Gus jumped into the truck bed on his own! Of course, I wasn't ready for this, so I let him just stay there. Gus got down within a few seconds.
Gus enjoying a jackpot
on the truck tailgate.
When I was ready, I gave him the cue. I clicked as he left the ground. Gus still didn't take the treat. He performed this several times—each time receiving clicks but not accepting the treat. But Gus wanted to eat his food, so I gave him his jackpot. While he was eating his food in the back of the truck, I used my remote key fob to make the truck lights flash—standing behind him and a good distance away. The lights alerted Gus for a second and he jumped down. Immediately he got back up and continued to eat. I again flashed the lights, and Gus gave no response but continued to eat. Next I started the truck with my remote key fob. He was again alerted and stopped eating, but didn't jump down. I turned off the truck immediately (again, pressure on, pressure off), and let him finish his meal.
Session 14: Same scenario as Session 13, but the truck running longer
The setup was exactly the same for this session, except that I didn't use the rug. As I dropped the tailgate Gus jumped on without me asking him. I walked away and he got down. I gave him the cue, and he jumped up. I clicked and treated. Gus still didn't want his treat, but his body language was neutral. I gave him his bowl of food to eat. While he was eating, I flashed the lights again. He was not alerted. I started the truck. Gus looked up and then went back to eating while the truck was still running. I let the truck run for 10 seconds before I turned it off. I waited another minute and started the truck again. This time Gus kept eating without looking up. I let the truck run even longer, maybe 30 seconds, before I turned it off and ended the session.
Session 15: Retrieving Gus's toy from the bed of the truck
We began the same way as Session 14. Gus offered to jump in the back of the truck, this time with positive body language. I got him down, and put his favorite toy on the tailgate. I asked Gus to retrieve the toy. He did and got rewarded. I placed the toy further into the truck and asked Gus to retrieve it. He did, and received his reward. The next time, Gus was 20 feet away from the truck when I threw the toy deep into the bed. He retrieved the toy perfectly!
I jackpotted him again and had him eat on the tailgate. While Gus was eating, I started the truck three times and turned it off, letting it run longer and longer each time. When Gus finished eating, he stayed on the tailgate wagging his tail and surveying the area.
Slow, steady, successful
In 15 short (5-10 minute) sessions I was able to teach Gus how to load into the truck with positive body language. Because he was challenged on a daily basis and was successful each day, his overall demeanor became bolder and more confident.
Gus learned a new command (Rug) that can be used in a practical way around the house. I learned that there are many different techniques for accomplishing a goal. Sometimes using all the techniques together is required to reach the goal! Evaluating training results as you work allows you to make adjustments in your training techniques and plans.
I don't think I want Gus to lose his fear of trucks completely; maybe it will keep him safe if he stays away from moving cars. I will continue to work on this new behavior with Gus to build confidence and to make the behavior a comfortable habit.