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Fox Trots with Wolves

 One of the major differences between clicker training and traditional training is the way one adds a cue to a behavior. This is an updated version of one of my newspaper columns.  -- GW

 Imagine that you are having a bad dream. You are dressed in formal evening clothes and it is obvious that you are competing in a ballroom dance contest. When your number is called, you grasp your partner and  glide out onto the floor -- only to realize that you don't know how to dance. As the music starts, your partner hisses at you through clinched teeth, "Fox-trot, you idiot!" and begins to dance. As the command to  fox-trot fails to cause you to do the dance, your partner starts chanting the word "fox-trot" and tries to pull and tug you around the dance floor. Soon the crowd has realized your ignorance and wishes to help you by  yelling, "FOX-TROT! FOX-TROT! FOX-TROT!" , in a vain hope that you will instantly learn the dance through this method.

 As you awaken from this nightmare you breathe a sigh of relief. Only in a nightmare is someone expected to learn and perform a complex behavior by being pulled and tugged while people are yelling unintelligible  words at them. While anyone can see that this would be an absurd way to teach a person to fox-trot, it is precisely the technique by which most dogs are taught obedience.

 One of the best kept secrets of training is that teaching a behavior is a separate task from teaching a command, i.e. the animal must know how to do a behavior before you can "command" the behavior to  happen. If Fluffy does not know how to retrieve a ball, it will do no good to chant "fetch" or "ball". Waving one's hands around won't help either. Screaming and jumping up and down will only make Fluffy  convinced that you have a serious mental disorder . The only way that Fluffy can learn that "fetch" means "go get the ball" is if she already knows how to retrieve -- and has the desire to do it.

 The more common way to train is to chant commands at an animal while attempting to manipulate it into position. Because the animal is forced to choose between paying attention to the commands, or learning the  behavior, one or both will suffer. Either the animal understands the behavior but must be told several times to do it, or the command is obeyed instantly, but in a sloppy fashion.

 While all this may seem logical, the implications of this concept may seem alien. If one does not talk to the animal first, how can the behavior be taught? If one trains silently, how does the command become  connected to the behavior? Before the strangeness of the concept causes you to reject it automatically, consider how you could use this method to teach your pet to sit. (You will notice that I said "pet", and not  "dog-- this method works on almost all four-footed land animals.)

  1. Take a treat and hold it in front of the animal's nose. As the critter  starts nibbling, slowly move the treat over its forehead. If the animal relaxes  its rear end a little, click and treat. Over a series of  repetitions, try  to get the animal to relax a little more each time until its rear end sinks  to the ground  and the animal "sits". Continue with this process at least  20 more times so that the animal learns that it can always get the treat  by sitting.
  2. Now that Fido, Fluffy or Flicka is consistently sitting in order to get the  treat, touch a treat to his/her nose and then quickly put it behind your  back. If the animal sits, click and treat. If it sits  there and looks confused  for several seconds, be patient. Wait at least 30 seconds to get the animal   to offer the behavior. If the animal does not offer a "sit" during the 30  seconds, lead the animal by the nose as you did in he beginning and try it  ten more times.
  3. Fido, Fluffy or Flicka will now sit whenever a treat is presented. To attach  a command to the behavior begin saying "sit" just before you think the animal  is about to do it. At this point you are  merely guessing that the weight  of your reinforcements will cause the behavior to happen. If the animal sits,  give it the treat and repeat this pattern about 20 times.
  4. To increase your pet's performance, start requiring a prompt response to  your command. If the dog doesn't respond within 3 seconds, gently say "wrong"  and try it again.

Methods that attempt to teach the behavior while simultanoeusly chanting the command often fail to develop consistent performance. Teaching the behavior first is an efficient alternative that can help your pet  be more obedient. Avoiding your pet's worst nightmare is as simple as teaching him the step before you ask him to dance.

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