Monday, March 27, 2017

How To Use The Clicker

I had a reader ask a great question about clicker training.  She wants to know what can be done with the clicker.  Can it be used to train the dog to stay out of a room or off the bed?

A Clicker Never Makes Bad Behavior Disappear

To give a good answer, I need to start with some training education.  In training speak, there are a couple of important words.  These are "reinforcement" and "punishment".  Reinforcement is anything that is done which makes a dog more likely to repeat a behavior.  Punishment is anything that is done which makes the dog less likely to repeat the behavior.

The clicker is a signal to the dog that a treat is coming.  It is a signal to the dog of the message "Thats Right!" delivered at the instant of the right behavior.  The clicker is a reinforcer.  It does not and cannot make any behavior less likely.

The original question contained two specific examples: 1) stay out of a room  2) stay off the bed.  I only have room and time for one example.

Stay Off The Bed

The reason the dog is going onto the bed is because it is comfortable...same reason you get on the bed.  Other reasons might be to be close to the owner.  In this example, the clicker can be somewhat useful, but its usefulness is a bit limited.

The dog can be trained to do an incompatible behavior.  If the dog is given a comfortable dog bed nearby, a "go to your spot" command can be trained.  If the dog is on his bed, he cannot be on yours.  The act of going to his bed is incompatible with jumping on yours. 

You might start by tossing treats onto the bed and clicking when the dog gets to the bed.  You'd do 10 tosses, and 10 clicks.  Next day, repeat the exercise, but put the command first, before you toss the treat.  Day 3, toss 6 treats as before, with the command.  For treats 7-10, do a fake toss.  When the dog hits the bed, click and deliver the treat.  Over the course of the next few days, ease into all fake tosses and no actual treats.  Also fade into no fake tosses.

At this point, you have a behavior where the dog will go to his bed.  The question is, though, what will the behavior be if you are not around to give the command and to give the treat?  Each dog is different.  Once dog may understand that you are pleased with him on his bed, and forgo getting onto your bed.  Other dogs may find the comfort and smell of your bed too great.  Some dogs may not even choose to leave your bed, because the comfort of your bed is a better reward than the treat you are offering.

If your dog still chooses to get onto the bed after learning this new behavior, the only option left is to punish the "getting on the bed behavior".  Some options for punishment:

  1. Scat Mat.  A scat mat is a vinyl mat that can deliver a static charge when touched.
  2. Place an office chair runner with the carpet points pointing up on the bed.  Note that this might need to be anchored to the bed as a smart dog will pull it off.
  3. If you google "Gary Wilkes Bonker", you will learn a novel approach to punishment which might be useful here.  The essence of this is to swat the dog on top of the head with a rolled towel.  This is more hands on and runs the same risk of the dog not being punished when you are not around to do the punishing.  A combination of "bonker" and chair runner might be the best combination of punishment.
What this might look like:  You are laying on your bed and the dog comes up uninvited.  You swat the dog on the head with the bonker.  As you are swatting, you command the dog "Go to your spot".  Once the dog gets to his bed, you click and treat and generally throw a big party for the dog.  Next time, take note of the dog.  If the dog goes to his spot of his own volition, without jumping on the bed and without being told, again you click and treat and throw a big party for the dog.  That dog may yet jump on the bed when you are not around.  If that is the case, then the chair runner would be the best fix for that.

What I particularly like about the above plan is that it starts with showing the dog the correct and expected behavior.  Only then is punishment used to eliminate the offending behavior.  When punishment is applied, the dog can be shown the correct behavior and be rewarded for choosing it.  Too often, we punish our dogs for bad behavior without showing them what good behavior looks like.  Think of it this way: how long would you keep at a job if you had to learn the job solely by being told what you do wrong?  This would be a horrible existence, yet this is the world of far too many of our dogs.  Show the dog the right behavior first.