Clicker training is used with many species of animals, horses, marine mammals, and, of course, dogs. What is it? It’s operant conditioning. The human becomes a machine the animal learns to operate. I met clicker training in the mid 90s when Lukas came to help me with a problem I was having with one of my dogs. It’s difficult to overestimate the value of using the clicker with our dogs. With shepherds, not the most food oriented creatures on earth, it’s sometimes difficult to get started. Once they get it though, the clicker is just about the most powerful tool in a handler’s toolbox.
Clicker work becomes a game to our dogs. Although it might be necessary to begin with a yummy treat, tiny bits of real meat, the actual treat becomes irrelavant. Honestly, I think I could use bits of carpet for a treat with my current dog, Kismet, and it would all still work. I’ve taught Kismet all new skills in our spacious bedroom. When I go in the room, close the door, and Kismet “get’s it” that we’re going to play clicker games, she’ll begin throwing every behavior I’ve ever taught her at me. She’s looking for the behavior that will earn her a click and a treat.
Here’s how it works. A yummy treat is associated with a sound. The sound is clear and concise. I began with a box clicker which can be purchased at any pet store for a buck. Doesn’t much matter what the thing looks like. The important thing is that it makes a distinctive noise pretty much unlike anything you hear in ordinary circumstances. Okay, fine, you operate a wrecking ball operated from a crane on construction sites. Maybe you wouldn’t notice the sound of the average clicker. You can stop reading now and get on with leaping, sorry, knocking down tall buildings.
If you’ve made it to this paragraph here’s how it works. The nice precise sound of the click comes to have the same meaning as the yummy treat. You wait for your dog to perform some behavior or other and, at the precise moment when the behavior is offered you click. Immediately thereafter you *must* offer the yummy treat. What? You were playing with the clicker in your pocket and accidentally clicked? Doesn’t matter. You clicked. Now pay up.
I get to telecommute sorta whenever I want to. Who’s my employer you say? Off topic. Point is, I was telecommuting Fridays at one point in my career. When Jim and I arrived home Thursday afternoon I kept forgetting to take Kismet’s harness out of the car. The result is, I had no wheels. Okay, I really had no paws but you get the idea.
In 2007 a group called “Click-to-Guide was born. Several Seeing Eye grads had met the clicker and we wanted more. At the time Seeing Eye hadn’t totally bought into the whole clicker deal but there were enough grads who wanted to know more. So the GoogleGroup was born.
At first we limited discussion to using the clicker for only “out of harness” activities.
Talk about grass roots.
The group was started and run for years by four grads. Trainers were part of the group, Lukas, of course, but we tried to make it very clear that the group was not officially part of Seeing Eye.
About four years after the clicker group was born I posted a message with the following subject:
Subject: Click to Guide- Can I use the clicker on myself?
In which I asked if anybody in the group could come up with a way *I* could be clicker trained to remember to take my harness out of the car Thursday afternoons. Seemingly, in no time flat, I received the following message.
You will need the following:
A Seeing Eye® harness
A 2-pound box of chocolate truffles
You must first associate the harness with a high-value treat such as a chocolate truffle. For many people, dark chocolate works best.
- Hold the truffle in one hand and the harness in the other. Eat the truffle.
- Advance to putting the harness down on a near-by surface and holding a truffle in one hand. Now, as you reach for the harness, eat the truffle.
- Next, eat the truffle only as your hand touches the harness.
- finally in this stage of the training, eat the truffle only when you reach for and pick up the harness. Be sure to eat the truffle the instant you feel the harness leather in your hand.
- Next you must transfer this behavior to other locations. Try picking up the harness from chairs, the floor, a door knob and, only when you are reaching quickly for the harness in all of these locations, transfer the behavior to the car. You should find that you become increasingly enthusiastic about training, but try to limit yourself to two or three short sessions a day.
- Next, you must work on distance: on getting the harness from the car into your house. Be patient with yourself and make sure you’ve still got plenty of truffles. (You might need to buy another 2-pound box at this point in the training.)
- Keep the harness in your lap while you are in the car so you can focus on getting it from car to house without worrying about remembering to pick it up. (That will come soon—after only another pound or two of chocolates.)
- As you get out of the car holding the harness, eat a truffle.
- Place a truffle on or near your front step or porch (be sure it is well above dog-nose-height; wouldn’t want to waste a truffle!)
- When you reach this truffle with the harness in your hand, eat it. (The truffle, not the harness.)
- Place a truffle just inside the door of the house. When you open the door with the harness in your hand, grab and eat the truffle. Timing is everything at this stage.
- Next, place a truffle near the location in the house where you normally keep your harness. When you arrive at this location with the harness, eat the truffle.
- By this stage in training, you should be highly-motivated to have the harness in your hand and eager to get it to its proper location in the house. You should also be a few pounds heavier, and this should slow you down enough to allow you extra time to remember the harness while you are heaving yourself out of the car.
Now ask someone else in your household to place truffles near where you normally keep your harness.
Have your helper vary the schedule, placing a truffle there only every few times, at random.
Eventually, you should only need a truffle there every few weeks to keep the behavior sharp.
- While the usefulness of jackpot reinforcers is questioned by some, I strongly recommend that every so often your assistant should leave an entire pound-box of truffles at the harness storage location. This will help with morale, as well as reinforcing the behavior.
Soon, you should find yourself salivating as you open the car door and grab for that harness.
If you find you are running back out to the car to put the harness inside it just so you can take it out again, back off on the treats and reward the behavior only in the presence of such cues as the car pulling into the driveway and the engine shutting off. These things are largely out of your control (or should be!) and hence can become cues you cannot (or should not) instigate, yourself.
Remember: do not be tempted to substitute an inferior form of chocolate, such as Hershey’s Kisses. I say this for your own good.
Also, try to save the eating of truffles for only those times when you are working on this particular behavior. Sneaking and eating them between training sessions will reduce their power as a motivator.
Good luck and keep us posted on your progress.
Author’s note: I did not have to institute said training regime. Simply reading the message was enough to ensure I removed harness from said car. Nor did I gain so much as one pound. Although there was the time I harnessed my computer case instead of my dog.