Information + Motivation - The Essence of the Clicker
Dog training requires confidence, and confidence breeds opinions -- something we dog trainers have in abundance. Successful training also requires that we know what works and what doesn't. That's where the opinions come in handy. For instance, if you poll a group of dog trainers you will discover that Clicker Training is either the hottest thing since sliced bread -- or a gimmicky fad. Somewhere in between those extremes is a perspective on training that offers some unique insights -- but it "ain't magic."
If you would like to get a quick look at this middle ground of clicker training, try this simple experiment. Take a ball and hold it at arm's length. Now drop the ball and try to say the words, "Good boy" at the exact instant the ball is at the half-way point.
If you had trouble connecting the praise to the mid-point of the ball's descent, don't blame your timing. In order to mark the exact instant the ball is at the half-way point you have three alternatives - and two of them don't work. First, you could begin saying "good boy" BEFORE the ball hits the middle. Second, you could start the phrase precisely at the mid-point and end about 1/2 second after the ball hits the ground. Third, you have to say "good boy" incredibly fast. When forced to adapt to the new necessity of timeliness, most people immediately try to shorten the length of the signal that marks the correct behavior. And that's the first major reason that I use a clicker -- it's quicker and potentially more accurate than verbal praise as a means of transmitting information.
Every method of training attempts to coordinate two fundamental aspects of behavior -- information and motivation. The most effective methods provide the animal with the information necessary to understand the task, and link the behavior to some motivation that insures reliable performance. The advantages and disadvantages of a method of training become clear when viewed from this perspective.
For instance, the most common use of verbal praise is to provide motivation, for correctly completing a behavior. We intuitively understand that applying the praise immediately after a behavior tends to make it happen again. The praise helps the animal grasp that performing the behavior "causes" a pleasant dose of human attention and affection. If one is concerned with sustaining or building motivation, this is a perfect way to use verbal praise. While praise works well to provide motivation, it is a more difficult tool to use to provide information about how to do the behavior.
To see how important it is to have an effective information signal, imagine that you are teaching a new behavior to an untrained dog. In the early stages of learning any behavior, a dog is dependent on the trainer for clear signals that identify which part of the behavior "caused" success or failure. Each success becomes important information that is then linked to that specific behavior -- like correctly placing another piece into a picture puzzle. The faster the dog can assimilate the information, the faster the behavior takes shape and becomes part of the dog's repertoire. The dog uses the timing of the "praise signal" to know how to put another piece in the puzzle. If you think back on our "drop the ball" experiment, you will see that if your goal is to provide information about how to do the behavior, the signal you use must be quick -- the quicker, the better.
While speed is an essential part of your information signal, it is not the only criterion that makes a good "info signal." The things that make up a good info signal are relative to the animal, the training task and environment. For instance, sounds don't work as information signals if the dog can't hear them. Likewise, hand signals are pretty useless if the dog is visually impaired or the behavior requires the dog to be looking away from the handler. Here's a simple way to decide if a given signal is the best one to give your dog the right INFO.
I - Immediate: You must be able to present the signal in connection with the correct behavior. It is the timing of the signal that tells the animal WHICH behavior to remember.
N - Noticeable: Whether you use a sight, sound or smell as your information signal, it must be easily recognized across the background sights, sounds and smells of the environment. If you are back lit, hand signals in front of your body will disappear inside your silhouette. If you are training in a roomful of other trainers, you will have to modify the way you talk in order for your dog to distinguish your voice apart from all the others.
F - Fast : In order to mark a behavior that may last a mere 1/10th of a second, you need a signal that can be delivered in 1/10th of a second.
O - One of a kind: Unless your Info Signal is unique and consistent, you will force the animal to focus on the signal instead of focusing on the behavior. The idea is to prevent the dog from having to think about anything other than the information about the behavior.
Once you get used to thinking in terms of these criteria, you can start evaluating the signals you use to send information to your dog. For instance for almost all serious training I use a clicker. It fits the INFO rules better than anything else I have found. That doesn't mean I always use a clicker. When training at a distance, the clicker isn't noticeable so I use a whistle. When training deaf animals, I use a hand signal as a "clicker". If I don't happen to have a clicker, I simply say "good." Though the verbal info signal isn't as fast as a clicker, it's always immediate -- unless I am chewing gum or talking.
The best place to start with clicker training is to realize that a clicker is merely a construction tool, like any other. Clicker training isn't magic, even if the results sometimes appear to be. Learning to use a clicker doesn't mean you have to give up your knowledge of "what works" and "what doesn't. If you are willing to take a shot at it, I will provide you with sound information about effectively applying this tool to obedience training. Hopefully, the results of using this tool will motivate you to use it often. Jump in, the water's fine.
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