Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Power of a Click

"Hi, human! Look at me walking here! Just checking in to get a treat!"

The clicker is a powerful thing.

For those of you who are new to my blog, Susquehanna Service Dogs uses clicker training to train all their dogs. It’s based on positive reinforcement. Every time the dog does something you want, you click and give the dog a treat. What dog wouldn’t love that? The clicker is also a very precise way to communicate with your dog. It marks a specific behavior or moment in time.

And it’s powerful. Let’s take loose leash walking. Well-timed clicks can transform a dog from one who pulls on the end of the leash into one who walks right next to you on a loose leash.

Of course, poorly timed clicks can turn your dog, who used to walk perfectly on a loose leash, into a dog who continually pulls to the end of her leash.

Now let’s take Dakota. When Dakota was a puppy, she used to walk beautifully on a loose leash. She’d stay right next to me, and the leash would be in a perfect, loose J shape. I was pretty proud of how nicely she walked. As she grew older, however, her perfect loose leash walking started to fall apart. She’d take a few steps right next to me, and I'd click and treat, but then she’d trot quickly ahead until she was at the end of her leash. And after that initial click, she'd keep pulling to the end of her leash.

SSD teaches puppy raisers to use penalty yards when dogs pull on the leash. Basically, when the dog starts getting too far ahead, you simply walk backward—the penalty yards—until the dog is back by your side. Then you walk forward again, clicking and treating after a few steps.

Well, penalty yards weren’t working with Dakota. Oh, she’d come back and stay right beside me for a few steps, but as soon as I clicked and treated her, she’s trot ahead again. We’d do more penalty yards, she’d take a few perfect loose-leash steps, I’d click, and she’s zip ahead again. More penalty yards, and well, you get the picture. We were getting nowhere. In fact, we were literally moving backward.

I chalked up her poor loose leash walking to being a teenager. When dogs hit those teenage years, at least half of what they learned goes flying out of their head. I figured little teenage Dakota thought the world was too interesting, so I tried what I did with teenage Doppler—I clicked and treated much more often. As soon as I gave ‘Kota a treat, I’d click again while she was still walking next to me.

Her loose leash walking got WORSE the more I clicked. So frustrating, because I thought I was doing everything right! I was doing the penalty yards. I was clicking while she was next to me. Why wasn’t it working?

That’s when I realized the problem wasn’t a teenage Dakota. The problem was ME. I was inadvertently clicking Dakota for walking quickly to the end of her leash.

See, I discovered that immediately after ‘Kota got her treat, she’d take 3-4 really fast steps. When I clicked right after giving her a treat, I was actually clicking her for walking really fast. Because the clicker marks an exact behavior, Dakota thought I was clicking her for walking fast. Of course, she kept walking fast which quickly put her at the end of her leash. After all, she’d been trained all her life to continue doing the thing she’d been clicked for. Walking fast became the behavior instead of loose leash walking.

Once I figured that out, I took a moment with her to simply click and treat for attention. I wanted to give both of us a chance to reset and focus. When we started walking again, I began delaying my clicks. Instead of clicking immediately after giving her a treat, I let her take those 3-4 fast “yay, I got a treat!” steps while I kept a steady pace. And what do you know, after her four fast steps, she slowed down, looked at me, and readjusted her pace to mine.

After a few nice steps—click, treat! I kept walking at a steady pace and waited for her to finish her fast “yay, treat!” steps and again, she readjusted her pace to mine and checked in with me. Once she had walked a few steps nicely with me, I clicked again.

Within five clicks, she stopped going anywhere near the end of her leash. She still took a few fast steps but she never went farther than a head and shoulders ahead of me before she re-matched her pace with mine. And she continually checked in with me instead of focusing only on the environment around her.

My loose leash walking puppy was back, thanks to the power of the clicker!

There are still times when Dakota sees the most interesting thing in the world and goes to the end of her leash. When that happens, I still give her penalty yards until she comes back to me. But now I know that when we start walking forward again, I need to be very precise with my click. 

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