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Reinforcing Doing Nothing

Q: I have been reading through all the articles on your website. I found one area of interest that is a little confusing for me. I have trained my dog using the clicker and she will do every trick on cue (with a word). When I bring my clicker out to try to teach a new behavior, my dog goes crazy and starts offering many behaviors. You state in the articles that a dog who does this doesn't know the behaviors on cue. But my girl will do all of them on cue. I am finding it hard to get her focused. Why is she going so crazy? Also, why do owners say their dog will only listen when clicker is present?


A: 1. Part of learning a cue is, as you are aware, doing the behavior when you get the cue for that behavior. An EQUALLY IMPORTANT part is not doing the behavior when you don't get the cue. We teach this by picking a very easy behavior, cueing it and reinforcing it several times, and then methodically giving the cue ONLY when the animal is standing or sitting still. You reinforce "doing nothing" by giving the cue to do "something." You thus use the clicker to teach the animal to wait for and attend to a cue. When you have done this with three behaviors, that random throwing of behavior will die down. You also will improve your own timing and observation skills with this process.

2. When dogs don't respond until they see the clicker they do not yet understand the real meaning of the click. They know food is available when they see the clicker, and they assume it's only available then. They have not yet learned that their own actions make you click, and that it's THEIR own behavior that produces value. Probably the person is a) clicking much too late, after the behavior is over, b) luring the behavior so the animal has no idea it could do the behavior on its own, and/or c) pointing the clicker at the animal as if it were a TV remote so the animal assumes the sight of the clicker is important.

"A good clicker trainer NEVER moves the treat hand before or while clicking, or the dog will watch the treat hand instead of listening to the click."

It's a beginner's problem, and easily overcome.

A good clicker trainer keeps the clicker out of sight (in your hand, behind your back, or in your pocket) so the dog doesn't pick it up as a false cue. A good clicker trainer NEVER moves the treat hand before or while clicking, or the dog will watch the treat hand instead of listening to the click.

A good clicker trainer reinforces lots of routine behavior outside of the clicker sessions, with a mouth click, a special word, and a pat, a smile, or sometimes a treat. Coming when called around the house, waiting at the door, standing still to have the leash put on, all are worth a verbal marker and some minor reward, thus teaching the animal that there are many ways to earn reinforcement through its own actions.

Karen Pryor

Follow-up: Thank you SOOOO much for that amazing answer. It put things into perspective for me. I now GET IT!!!! I was wondering why things were going crazy. Your explanation is very clear and makes sense to me. Thanks again!


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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.

New behaviours are a challenge, aren't they?

Your advice on how to reinforce "doing nothing, waiting for cue" is very valuable and I have read it at least a dozen times. I know the problem, of course - my dog throwing behaviours at me when she wants to earn a treat, sort of an "advanced begging" ;-)... that's definitely the moment when I'll want to follow your advice and make her wait and listen to me. But to be honest, I still think the original question was about a different situation. "When I bring my clicker out to try to teach a new behavior, my dog goes crazy..." Isn't that the moment when we want the dog to experiment, to try many behaviours, to figure out that we want something new, and what? We wouldn't want her to sit patiently in front of us, waiting for a cue, would we? Not much to shape starting from there ;-) I just guess that a dog knowing the "101 things" game will realise more quickly that it's not one of its "old" behaviours we want, and try something new instead, but that's just a guess. Or maybe from a quietly sitting dog, you start with lures and targets? Is it possible, or even desirable, to shorten the period of random behaviours when starting to work on a new one? I'm not very experienced yet, so I'm really curious to know.
Thanks a lot
Nellie Marsh

Puppy Training

In a few weeks I will be getting my chocolate lab puppy. Mom just gave birth to a healthy litter. I have recently retired and can now spend the time necessary to train my pup correctly. I think the clicker system is great and intend to use it, and am doing some advanced studying. I have one immediate question for you. What is the best way to eliminate any accidents using the clicker system? I ordered your puppy training kit but have not received it yet. So was looking for some heads up info. Also some folks have said to keep them in crates, the theory being they wont defecate where they sleep or eat. Is this true?
Many Thanks

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