It’s a common conversation in my line of work, and it goes like this:
Student: “My dog is a (fill in the blank here, shut-down, crossover, fearful, anxious, etc.) dog and we just can’t get clicker training.”
Me: “Sounds challenging! I am happy to help. Tell me how you introduced clicker training.”
Student: “I loaded the clicker, and he seems to know that the click means food. But then I played 101 things to do with a box, and he never played. He just quit.”
The sad thing is that these people have done their homework. They have read the available information about introducing clicker training to their dogs. And they are still not getting anywhere. To say that is a big problem is an understatement.
For years people new to clicker training have been instructed to play the game “101 Things to do With a Box” to get their dogs hip to the game of shaping. It is a simple game in which the trainer clicks and treats any interaction with a box (or any novel item) the dog offers. It is thought that the introduction of this game will help dogs be more keen to offer novel behaviors, as the game itself is derived from the idea of teaching novelty on cue. Karen Pryor advises using this game to help “crossover dogs” (dogs that have been previously trained with force) become more confident in her article linked above. It is supposed to be the golden ticket to shaping success for both new clicker trainers and new clicker dogs. It sounds great, but my story above is not uncommon and I hope to outline not only why this is happening but what I propose we do instead.
Acknowledging Learner Stress
Especially in the case of the nervous learner (crossover dogs are one example, but many dogs are generally distrusting of the learning environment for a variety of reasons) I think giving them the wheel (it’s all up to you! You can’t be wrong!) does more harm than good. Imagine your boss comes into your office and hands you a blank piece of paper and a pencil. She says, “here, go for it,” then sits down and watches you, offering no further guidance. Depending on your past history in this environment, your relationship to your employer, and your personality, the stress you feel in this moment could be anywhere from very mild to excruciating. If you’re a “crossover human” who has recently switched to this job from one that was regimented and did not inspire creativity, your stress is likely to be quite high, no?
As clicker trainers we really ought to be helping our learners out by setting them up to succeed, and that entails far more than just stating “whatever you try will be reinforced.” Contingencies that rely on aversive consequences are one way to apply stress to your learner; but they are not the only way. In fact, I have witnessed a lack of clarity cause what I perceived to be a great deal more stress in an animal than the skilled application of an aversive. I do not advocate aversive tools or methods but I see that my responsibility certainly does not end there. Good animal training allows the learner a lot of freedom while at the same time setting the scene for the desired behaviors to occur. Showing your brand new learner an empty box and letting them go for it does not qualify.
A Different Idea
I propose that dogs and people learn how to get clicking a different way; by presenting the human learner with a simple game with clear steps, and the dog learner with a clear contingency. The human learner can develop what I call CTPs (clean training practices) at a nice easy pace, because they are built into the process.
To begin I propose a simple hand target or a visual target for hand-shy dogs.
The scene for the hand targets should be set to almost guarantee a target. The handler should sit on the ground near the dog and hold both of her hands together. The clicker and treats are stored in one hand, and the other hand comes away, moves toward the side of the dog’s face, and as she goes to investigate (which most will, because, hey! that smells like food!) click and treat. Here’s a video:
Very quickly the scene should change. The food should be stored in a different container (that’s one of those CTPs!) but still nearby. The hand will be offered close to the dog’s face (but gradually further away). The trainer is still to click a nose touch to the hand, and then she is to take that target hand, place it into her food container, and deliver a treat. After a brief pause, she can repeat. Because the dog just ate from that hand, he is likely to go check that hand again, and by now he will start to get the game. Here’s a video of that step:
What if the dog is just too timid to investigate the hand? No problem, we always need to meet our learner where they are. Same process, but click the dog just for the glance toward the hand. Work on getting those mechanics perfect, and before long the dog WILL target your hand. In this video I get a nose target to hand from 15 year old Tundra who is afraid of the clicker (I make a sound with my tongue instead) and does not like hands coming toward her:
From here, the learner and the trainer are both starting to get some good skills, so more advanced targeting projects can be attempted, such as teaching the dog to hold his nose to the target hand, or to target a novel object.
Teaching the dog a skill like targeting by using a clean contingency scenario in which they are set up to succeed leads the trainer to be able to teach the dog that they can further approximate that skill toward novel items. I find this breakdown to be a much kinder (and much more effective) way to introduce them to the concept of offering new behaviors than the 101 things game.