Take the Cue from Your Dog

Good timing of your actions is essential in training.  How do you know when to click, when to raise criteria in shaping a new behavior, when to end a training session?  Watch your dog for a cue.  That’s right – information has to flow both ways, between you and your dog.  When my dog does this, I do that.  Bringing this focus to the front of your mind will sharpen your training skills.

How do you know when to click?  The click marks the behavior you want, so you have to know what you want and what that behavior looks like.  If the behavior takes some time to occur, such as the action of sitting, you have plenty of time to recognize it and click before the behavior is over.  But some behaviors can be very quick – teaching eye contact and nose targeting are two examples.  In these cases, it helps to think about what the dog is doing just before he is likely to do the clickable behavior.  The dog’s nose is moving toward your hand (if you are teaching a hand target) before it actually touches your hand.  If you want to click as the dog’s nose touches your hand, you have to start pressing on the button of the clicker BEFORE the nose touches your palm.

clicker held in hand

How do you know when to raise criteria in shaping a behavior?   You have to observe your dog’s actions for clues that he  is learning the behavior.  If you are shaping a dog to touch his nose to your palm, how do you know when to increase the distance that you present your hand?  Again, the dog’s actions are giving you the cue about what to do next.  If you see that your dog is deliberately reaching out to touch your hand, increase the distance by an inch next time you present your hand. If the dog is able to target your hand at the increased distance, you have been successful.  If the dog does not touch your hand, that is a cue that you may have increased the distance too much.

smiling Corgi

Your dog’s body language is giving you cues all the time.  Is he eagerly responding to you cues and focused on you, or is his attention wandering, is he distracted by something in the environment?  A distracted dog is a cue that you need to change something in the training environment, or perhaps you have extended your session for too long.  The ideal length of a training session is not a certain number of minutes, but depends on your dog’s attitude.  You want to to quit while you are ahead, while your dog still wants more.  That way, training will always be something your dog is eager to engage in.

Cues from your dog are examples of focus points in a training system called TAGteaching. TAG stands for Teaching with Acoustical Guidance.  It is similar to clicker training, but for humans.  It is like clicker training in that there is an acoustical marker (like a clicker) that marks the correct behavior, positive reinforcement is given, and mistakes are not punished.  It is different from clicker training because people can explain a skill verbally before the student attempts it. The verbal explanation is distilled down to a simple phrase focusing on one aspect of the skill, the TAG point.    The coach can TAG you with a clicker when you perform the action of the TAG point.  Children may earn tokens toward a chosen reinforcer, adults usually find the correct performance of an action to be reinforcing.   If you are working by yourself, the TAG point is called a focus point.  Here is the website for TAGteach International.

Rules list written on white paperWhen my clients are first learning how to use the clicker, focus points include:

  • Keep your hands still while clicking
  • Click during the behavior you want
  • Click first, then reach for a treat

As the use of the clicker becomes second nature, more focus can be given to the dog’s behavioral cues:

  • When the dog is reliably offering the behavior, it is time to add a cue
  • Click the dog that looks at you after looking at a distraction
  • Be ready to reinforce the dog that jumps ahead of your shaping plan

The more prepared you are for all the possible responses (or lack of responses!) that your dog can make during training, the better communication you will have with your dog.  Better communication = more learning.

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