Clicker training is an approach to training your dog but it's also a life-improving philosophy! A person with any disability would do well to learn how to apply clicker training effectively. (By the way, you don't have to use a clicker to clicker train! You can use a word "Yup!" or sound like a whistle.)
There are many benefits to learning how to clicker train your service dog:
Generalizing: Once we start training our dogs to perform different behaviors in different locations, we find that they are often confused in the new location, not being stubborn. We discover that our dogs don't "know" a behavior or task until they have had a chance to relearn and practice it in many different locations. This is because they tend to look for small clues to tell them what we want. In each new location, they have to relearn the behavior from the start. We are very similar to our dogs. Most people think they are quite good at applying skills learned in one environment and used in another. I am sad to tell you, most are not. Think of when you have taken a class and then tried to use the information and skills in another class. I bet you made mistakes the first few times and had to relearn the skill? Perhaps even go back and read the information? Learning the principles of clicker training and applying them to many different behaviors, tasks and in different situations, we can learn how to generalize all of our knowledge and skills better. Once we become very skilled at generalizing, we can apply it anywhere correctly. That opens up a whole new world of what behaviors and tasks we can train our service dog to do for us. It also improves how we function in the world! Isn't that the whole point of having a service dog?
Read Dog Language: In order to use the clicker or marker well, we need to learn to read dog communication. Communication between dog and handler goes two ways. The dog must read us and we must read the dog. The dog's communication tells us if he is understanding what we want or how he is feeling about what he is doing. This information is useful when we are training. It lets us know that we need to modify our approach so our dog better understands what we are asking. This in turn, gets us thinking from another being's perspective. Why might the dog be doing what he is doing? There are reasons behind the behavior beyond being stubborn or stupid. This builds empathy in us. Empathy is a key ingredient in building and maintaining strong relationships with our dogs and with other people.
Shaping improves Observation Skills: One of the best parts of clicker training is shaping. Shaping involves starting with a tiny piece of the final behavior and then waiting for the dog to offer more of the behavior to get closer to the final behavior you want. Think of it like a series of snapshots in time that makes up a whole behavior. To use a phone, you must pick up the phone, turn it on, dial the numbers, press the connect button, then put the phone to your ear and wait for the ringing sound to stop. When we shape, each one of these behaviors can be marked and rewarded before putting them together as a whole behavior. Even smaller steps like bringing the phone from your chest up to your ear can be broken into smaller pieces. Learning to watch for these tiny behaviors improves our skills of observing.
We Use Our Minds and the Environment to Teach: When clicker training is used, we use our minds and the environmental set up to teach the dog what we want. We don't need to physically interact with a dog to teach him and he can even be at a distance from us. The dog's job is to figure out what will make us click and reward him. It is our job to figure out how to set up the situation so our dog will succeed. This allows more people with physical disabilities to train their own service dog. We learn that in life, the physical and emotional environment plays a huge role in the degree to which we are successful in what we do and for other people as well.
Put More Energy Into Rewarding Behaviors We Want: Society teaches us to focus on the incorrect responses and correct or punish those. Instead, with clicker training, we learn to focus on and reward the behaviors we want from our dog. The more often those behaviors are rewarded at the right time, the more often they will occur and the stronger they become. How often are we rewarded many times in a day? Wouldn't if feel better if we were rewarded more? We can start the change with our dog and it will build to positively affecting the people around you! Family, health-care workers, retail staff and others will feel the change and respond to it.
Break Behaviors and Tasks into Smaller Pieces: Every problem can be divided into tiny achievable steps. There is a saying: "Yard by yard, Life is Hard. Inch by Inch, It's a Cinch!" (Unknown) Every behavior, task, challenge or problem can be divided into tiny achievable steps. We just have to take the time to break them down and then do them. This process speeds learning and reduces the roadblocks to learning new things and refining known skills. And yes, applies to your life as a whole!
Learn What True Partnership Is: True partnership is taking turns following the lead of another that we trust. By using the principle of clicker training to create a partnership of trust, we can become more of a whole together than if we are separate. Dogs have a different skill set than we do. Those dog skills complement our human skills. We need to trust our dog to lead when he has the expertise. Other people have different skill sets. We need to learn to build partnerships with them too.
Shifts Our Whole Approach to Life Towards the Positive. Clicker training helps us understand our dogs and ourselves better. Anyone who embraces the philosophy has a shift towards being more positive in life. It starts by being more positive to our dogs and expands to being more positive towards other people in our life. The negatives still happen, but focussing more on the positives reduces the chronic stress that is detrimental to our physical and emotional health.
Learning is Lifelong: This is probably the most important lesson! We are never there yet. There is always one more task to teach our service dog or one more thing for us to learn. That seeking of knowledge and skills is what keeps us moving forward. Learning is fun!
I invite you to learn these lessons. Give clicker training a try!
Want to get Inspired?
Books to Read
Reaching the Animal Mind by Karen Pryor -Karen shares her personal experiences with clicker training to show what is possible with clicker training. It is inspiring, easy to read, enjoyable and each chapter has video links of examples!
On My Mind by Karen Pryor- This is a thoroughly readable series of essays about her personal views on clicker training.
Don't Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor-This small books helps you to understand the learning theory. She uses great people and animal examples. Again, it is written for the layperson to understand.
To get started all you really need is a marker sound and a handful of small soft treats. Check out this video to see what other simple things you can use:
Jump right in with teaching simple behaviors your dog already does.
This video introduces the proper technique of clicker training. The specific example of eye contact, but you can use "Wait", nose target.
Your first session
Here is an example of learning to read dog language during training:
Jessie shows signs of stress
If you are on Facebook, join the Observation Skills for Dog Training group
A good next step is to take a Foundations Skills Class in Clicker Training! Have fun!
Owner training allows handlers to choose some non-traditional breeds or higher energy individual dogs that match their active lifestyle. Some people end up with dogs that have more energy than they bargained for or they inadvertently ramp the dogs up by how they interact with the dog (what they reinforce without knowing it like jumping up on their arrival or excited behavior in general). While it is important that these dogs get enough appropriate exercise, it is also important that these dogs be taught how to relax. The relaxation protocol created by Dr. Karen Overall is one tool that they can use to help teach a dog to calm themselves.
The relaxation protocol is an incremental way to teach a dog to calm himself in the face of distractions. It lays out a training process so the handler can add distractions in small enough bits that the dog can succeed. There are many layers to this protocol and they are laid out in detail for handlers to follow. A bit of creativity will be needed to adapt some of the distractions for people with balance or mobility challenges. A side effect of the protocol is building a reliable stay behavior which is ideal for service dogs. You can combine the protocol with a mat to more easily generalize it to different locations.
Here is a link to the text-based protocol.
Here is a link to audio clips that you can listen to while training.
If your service dog in training has a short attention span is antsy or has trouble focusing, it is worth trying the protocol. It is a great foundation to start training relaxing with a puppy too!
There are many ways to train a dog to be a service dog or just a well-adjusted canine family member. In order to know what the options are, we have to do some research on what has been done in the past, what we are currently doing and what the future might hold. In light that we are starting the New Year, I thought I'd do a quick review of dog training past, present and future.
These groupings are broad generalizations and are only intended to give you a starting point for research of training your own dog. The popularity and methodology of each overlaps and some trainers continue to use historical methods today.
While concept of formal dog training started around 1914 in Germany by Konrad Most, and was among the first to train assistance dogs for the blind at the German Dog Farm, dog training as a profession really started to be a "thing" to do before the Second World War when the American Kennel Club started their obedience trials. After the Second World War, a number of soldiers returned home from the war with dog training skills. Training was based on techniques that fit well with the military. It was a hierarchical approach where the dog must do what they were told and punishment was applied if the dog did not comply. Some of the techniques were very harsh and they were recommended to only be used with dogs older than 6 months so the dog's spirit would not be broken. The earliest service dog organizations used this approach. The general population was introduced to dog training as a hobby on a broader scale in training classes starting in the late 1930's or so.
Some names associated with this type of training were William Koehler, Monks of New Skete, Barbara Woodhouse. Recently, Cesar Millan became popular for reviving it's widespread use.
Positive reinforcement approaches began in the 1930's with BF Skinner's theory of Behaviorism. Marian Breyland Bailey produced reliable data that animals could be trained using positive approaches and with her husband Keller Breyland (both students of Skinner) started a company Animal Behavior Enterprises that trained many species of animals for television (1955). The approach did not become widespread in use until Karen Pryor popularized Clicker Training in the early 1990's. The Lure Reward method was made popular by Ian Dunbar who started the first puppy classes in the 1980's to start training before 6 months of age. Positive reinforcement minimized the use of punishment and taught dogs to think about how their behavior affected the environment. It was also called "Operant Conditioning" Or "Respondent Learning" for this reason.
More and more service dog training organizations are using positive reinforcement to train dogs with a higher success rate than they had with the hierarchical approach. Michele Pouliot of Guide Dogs for the Blind is one example. The use of marker-based training (using a clicker, word Yes! or tongue cluck) make it possible for people with poor strength and coordination to train their own service dogs (owner-trained service dogs), even complex tasks. Capturing and Shaping behavior in small increments was an effective part of this approach. Jean Donaldson author of Culture Clash and Paul Owens author of The Dog Whisperer are other names to note.
Currently, much research is being done on how dogs learn than in any other time in history. Exciting new approaches are being investigated as science uncovers just how intelligent dogs are, in what ways and what is the most effective way to train them (in general and for service dog work). Dogs watch our eyes, follow a finger point, learn with social mimicry, have theory of mind, problem solve and so much more! Claudia Fugazza has refined a process to teach dogs how to maximize mimicry for learning new behaviors called Do as I Do. The dog watches their trainer do a behavior and copies it. Jennifer Arnold has been applying some of the learning to the training of service dogs at Canine Assistants.
One thing we are also learning is that a puppy's early experiences both with the litter and after 8 weeks in their new homes sets an important foundation for the ability to handle stressors, socialization and learning so it pays to find a good breeder. Jane Killian's Puppy Culture breeder list is a great place to start. We also need to spend time enriching our puppy's environment and socializing him before 12 weeks of life.
A dog named Rico and another named Chaser have taught us that dogs can learn the proper names of as many as 1000 objects, learn by inference, do several behaviors with multiple objects, learn categories, and much more! John Pilley wrote the book Chaser to share his findings. An early researcher in this area, Irene Pepperberg, opened the doorway with her parrot Alex using the model-rival method.
Other key names of canine researchers are Brian Hare of Dognition and Adam Miklosi of Family Dog Project.
I invite you to research these names to find out more about how much dogs (in general) are capable of. Of course, like humans, dogs vary in their genetics and past experiences so what each dog is capable of varies. That is why it is so important to select the right dog as your potential service dog.
Resource Guarding Appears "Out of the Blue"
Even among carefully selected and raised service dogs, resource guarding may appear in a dog that has never previously demonstrated it.
If the resource guarding behavior is 'appearing out of the blue' at around 6 mos to 16 mos, you may be dealing with a fear period or adolescent hormones. The larger the breed, the later adolescence sets in and the longer it lasts.
Resource Guarding is most commonly species specific. This means that he will typically only guard against other dogs, not humans or vice versa. Just because your dog resource guards again other dogs doesn't not mean he will do it against people Just because he resource guards against people, does not mean he will do it against other dogs. The most important thing is that he is safe in public. If he is not, remove him from public access training or work immediately.If your dog resource guards in both situations, it may be an indicator of his underlying temperament. Look at other aspects of his life. Does he show fear or mistrust in other ways? Where does he lack confidence? Is he a bully? Dogs that are bullies are typically fearful dogs that were not properly socialized. They may have had a buddy who was too over the top for them and they adapted by becoming pushy themselves. Just like in humans, bullying is an indicator of lack of control and fear.
Resource guarding could also be a result his training history. Even if you think you are not using confrontation-based training methods, your dog may see it differently.
Each dog has his own tolerance level for force and emotional pressure and each copes with it differently. This is a common reason I see for the mistrust seen in resource guarding. In past situations, you may have inadvertently used emotional or physical force and your dog has legitimate reason not to trust you. Confrontational methods may lead to resource guarding as the dog learns he cannot trust you with things that are important to him. Unfortunately using violence in training, often gets violence in return.
An altercation with another dog over his toys or food may affect future interactions with that specific dog or be generalized to react when the next strange dog that approaches when he has a toy. Generalizing to other dogs is more common in dogs that have had limited or poor dog to dog socialization during the critical socialization period when he was 5 to 12 weeks old. This is because they have very few positive interactions to draw from to overcome one negative interaction. Science tells us that negative experiences have much more influence than positive experiences as a survival mechanism.
Consult a positive dog training professional or veterinary behaviorist for their help and assessment. Look long and hard at his over all behaviors. Is he fearful? How is he responding to training? You do not want your service dog to be a liability to you in public. If he has underlying fears or mistrust, he may not be a good service dog candidate and may need to be removed from training as a service dog. What you want to do is avoid a confrontation with your dog at all costs. Putting in that situation allows him to practice the unwanted behavior. Practice makes perfect. If you back away when he does react, he is reinforced for growling (or worse). If you force him to give up his item, he learns he can't trust you and it further undermines his trust in you.
1. Observe Your Dog
Watch for situations that trigger the resource guarding behaviors.
What exactly are the things the dog guards?
Against who does he guard them?
What specific behaviors do you see and when do they occur?
Early warnings are the dog asking for distance. He might look away, turn his eyes away (called whale eye) or turn his head away as you approach. He might do a big yawn. He might lick nose tip. This one most people miss as it happens so quickly. He may paw the object or move closer to it. Watch your dog when he is with his food dish or higher value toys.
The end stage behaviors are the dog freezing (get still) and his eyes get 'hard" and glaring. If the dog is doing this, the dog has escalated his behavior from the early signs and you may hear growls. This is the dog telling you (or the other dog) that he is willing to escalate his behavior further to air snapping or biting to protect the resource. If the dog has been punished for growling previously, he may just freeze and then bite. Punishment to a dog might just be you verbally chastising him "Don't you do that." in a lowered tone.
What age was the dog when you first noticed it?
2. Once you have determined the things your dog resource guards against and what he doesn't, start with things that are lower value than those. In a situation such as on his dog bed where he has resource guarded in the past, give your dog a lower value toy or treat than he has ever shown RG for. If needed, start with an object that the dog has not interacted with before like a piece of wooden dowel or a plastic tube. Starting this process with a lower value item teaches the dog how to play the game and what he can expect later.
If there are children or mentally incapacitated adults involved, make sure they are not involved in the process and removed form the room while you train. This helps to give the dog one less thing to worry about and keeps them safe until it is time to bring them into the process. Prepare your treats: choose medium value treats (commercial treats are fine like Rollover or Zukes) and make sure that the treats are hidden in a pocket or treat pouch out of sight before you bring them out.
Start by giving to dog the item, then back outside the dog's personal space for a few seconds. Now take a small step into your dog's space and toss a treat right near his mouth and take a step back. Repeat for several sets of 10 repetitions until your dog is looking eagerly up at you anticipating that your moving towards him (while he has the item) means more treats are coming. When that happens, you can decrease your distance from your dog by stepping a little closer in, toss the treat and pick up the toy, the drop it again. Step away. Once you can get closer you can lean in, drop the treat and lean out. Repeat several times until again the dog is looking forward to your approach and you taking the time away.
Next step is to step in, toss a treat, and while he is eating take the toy away, toss another treat and step away. This step teaches the dog that even when the toy is removed, something good will come in its place.
3. Next, increase in the value of the item, and repeat the process but use high value food treats (any kind of REAL meat, not commercially made treats-cooked beef, pork, chicken, lamb, turkey-I use heart, tongue or roast) instead. Make sure that the treats are hidden out of sight in a pocket or treat pouch before they appear.
Since you know the dog resource guards this object, you will need to add more distance away from the dog to start and progress forward much more slowly. Wait for body language that tells you he is looking forward to you moving towards him with the treat. It may take several sessions to be able to progress to where you can get close enough to touch the item. Taking it away may be many more. If it seems to e taking too long, or your dog's behavior is getting worse, not better, then consult a qualified positive trainer or veterinarian behaviorist for help. Take each step slowly and do many repetitions. Repeat the 3 step process process with many different high value items.
4. Now repeat the process right step 1 to 3 in many different locations. You want to make sure the dog has generalized the behavior (can do it) in many different locations and situations. Always err on the side of caution. Protect children and the public when possible. Remember that you are ultimately liable for the behavior of your dog.
Periodically in your training review the process to make sure the behavior stays fresh in your dogs mind. This step is called maintenance so your dog can remember how to do it even years after he learned it. This will help to keep you and the public safe.
The first time your service dog growls at you when you try to take something away from him, you feel shocked and affronted. Your first impulse may be to strike out.
"But this is my SERVICE DOG! He should be able to trusted in any situation."
Well, dogs are dogs, just like people are people. If someone tries to take something away from you that you feel is yours and is valuable to you, then you will defend your right to keep it. At the very least, you would verbally warn them that what they are doing may lead to confrontation. If someone walked up, even a family member, and just grabbed your cell phone from your hands, you would be upset, wouldn't you? You'd certainly voice your complaint. That is what your dog is doing. He is saying "This is mine, I value it highly and I don't trust you to not take it away from me." The only thing wrong with this behavior in dogs is how humans interpret the situation.
Resource Guarding is a Normal Behavior for Dogs
Resource Guarding is a normal behavior for dogs, though not a desirable in a service dog since in public, despite laws that protect your dog from being interfered with while working, the reality is that people don't think before interacting with service dogs and they don't read patches on vests etc. People of all ages may try to take things way and they may let their dogs approach your dog when he is working.
Possession is 9/10 of the Law
Among dogs, possession is nine tenths of the law. What this means is that if a high value object (food or toy) is in the personal space of a dog, (whether or not the object is in his mouth) that object is considered his. It would be rude if another dog or person came over and removed it without invitation or permission. In many cases a fight would start.
While some dogs will allow another dog to take it, it is because they know the other dog wants the object more than they do and to keep the peace, they will not fight for it. These are usually highly socialized dogs who spend time with other functionally socialized dogs.
Dogs, unless not properly socialized or they have been traumatized by another dog or their handlers, in general, are willing to do what it takes to keep the peace between themselves and other beings that have been socialized with. Fighting is risky and they may end up injured or dead, so that is why dogs have developed a complex communication system to avoid conflict. Each dog has different things that are important to him (might be food, toy or even their person) and depending on the value, he may be willing to give it up to keep the peace. But every dog has his limit. If that object happens to be the human equivalent of cell phone or iPad, then he might not want to give it up as easily and may let the other dog (or person) know by growling.
Unfortunately, not all humans have learned to speak dog as a second language and may feel it is their right to take anything away from a dog, even if it is not their dog. And even if the dog has warned them not to. Kids may run up and take an object away, or stick their hands between your service dog and a treat you are feeding him. Humans exhibit all sorts of odd behaviors in the presence of dogs. So, since you are taking your dog into public places as a service dog, you need to teach him that strangers may take valuable things away from him, and that is fine for them to do that!
Preventing Resource Guarding
As soon as your pup comes home from the breeder at 8-9 weeks, give him a few days to settle in, then start trading items with him. To take a valued toy, move in slowly but be relaxed, gently ask for the toy, take it away and at the same time present an equivalent value toy or treat in return. Praise!When the pup is reliably trading, you can ask for the toy, then delay presenting the other toy until after he has given you the one he has. That way, the second toy is a reward for giving up the first one, rather than a bribe. Mark (or click) the instant the chooses to give it up, praise and give him the other toy.
Repeat the process with higher value things like bones. Using two equal value items helps at first. On the last trade of the training session, give the pup something higher value like a treat that he can consume and you keep the toy.
If he won't give up the toy willingly, the toy, switch your approach. Let him play with the toy he has and ignore him until he has dropped the toy and walked away from it. Pick up the high value toy. Next, use a lower value toy, get some high value treats and present the toy to him. Click a soft clicker and present a food or equivalent toy reward to him as soon as he drops the toy. Repeat until he's reliably dropping the toy when he hears the clicker. Now start adding your 'drop it' cue just before you click. After several sessions of this, try just saying the drop it cue, wait for the drop it, the click and reward. Now he's started to understand the cue means to drop it.
This also starts the process of the pup learning to give an object for a retrieve (so you get two benefits for one behavior).Increase the value of the toy or bones etc. until you are able to cue drop it and your dog willingly drops it. For most dogs raw bones or a plate of human food are the highest value to them.
If your pup has come home from the breeder doing resource guarding, you need to dig into the recent history. Do the parents do this (an indication of genetics)? What type of handling did the breeder use that may have fostered this lack of trust in the pups? Were the pups handled enough in an appropriate manner? Did their kids tease the pups with food or toys? Learning he history will help you figure out the right way of approaching it and how long it might take to overcome, especially if it is an established habitat at that tender age.
Living with Other Dogs
If your dog lives with another dog, ensure that behavior around feeding times is calm. Start by feeding one in a crate or behind a baby gate, before feeding them at opposite ends of the room before moving them incrementally closer together. Both dogs need to learn the presence of another dog near his food or toys is a good thing. Treats appear when the other dog is near. When the other dog moves away, the treats stop coming.
Teaching your dogs to take turns with other dogs for doing behaviors and getting rewarded for doing so is a great way to approach it. Make sure to generalize it to many other dogs, known and unknown to your dog.
Avoid feeding your dog in public. If you are away from home, take your dog to a private location to feed him. Put him in your car, a crate or behind a locked door. This will help to keep his stress level low and prevent strange dogs and people from approaching while he eats. Teach your dog to take turns while training with other dogs. That way, when food is used for training, he will know that his turn is coming and he will be able to earn his the food ad will not get anxious about it.Choose the value of toys used in public carefully. Avoid using bones, pigs ears, stuffed Kongs etc that other dogs may find valuable unless your dog is in a location with no other dogs. If you are trying to increase duration of your dog settling in public, use hand-delivered treats instead so you can control when, how and to whom they are delivered.
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