Foundations

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Clicker Training

Clicker training is the basis of the foster training program outlined in the next few posts. If you're not already familiar with the concept, this short video from kikopup demonstrates the three methods used to create behaviors in clicker training (Shaping, Luring, and Capturing) and shows some of the spiffy tricks you can teach with a clicker.

Kristy, yellow Labrador puppy, adopted from Robeson County Animal Shelter in January 2012

You don't need an actual clicker to get started. A marker word such as "Yes!" can work just as well. The advantage of a clicker is that it's a perfectly uniform sound -- there are no vocal variations that might confuse your dog -- and that it's a quicker, sharper noise, so it can capture behaviors more precisely. The advantage of a marker word is that it's less startling to a sound-sensitive dog (as many fosters are) and it leaves both of your hands free, which is helpful when you're training tricks that require two hands to shape or lure.

Whether you decide to use a clicker or a marker word -- and I usually teach my dogs using both, so that the adopters can continue with whichever tool is most comfortable for them -- you need a total of three marker signals for maximum effectiveness:

  • Reward Marker: The click or "Yes!" that tells your dog she's gotten the right answer. When I say "click/treat," what I mean is "use the reward marker and hand out a treat," even if you're not actually using a clicker for this. Always treat after using the reward marker. Even if you messed up and clicked accidentally when you didn't mean to, hand a treat out anyway. Otherwise you risk diluting your signal, and you want your foster dog to perk up immediately when she hears it. No false alarms.
  • Getting Closer...: A signal of encouragement that your dog is on the right path, but not quite there yet. Think of this as "warmer... warmer..." when playing Hot/Cold. It tells your dog to keep doing what she's doing, as she's on the road to reward. Use of this signal should be phased in gradually; it's a touch more advanced than the click/"Nope!" binary signals. I usually start adding it in around the third or fourth day of training and let the dog figure out the meaning by context. I use a drawn-out "Gooood" as my intermediate signal; freestyle trainer Attila Szkukalek uses "Cleverrr." Pick something that you can stretch into a long sound.
  • No Reward Marker: A signal that tells your dog she's screwed up and is doing totally the wrong thing. "Oops!" or "Nope!" are popular ones. Deliver the NRM in an upbeat tone, never a scolding one -- you're not correcting your dog for a harmful misbehavior, just telling her that she's goofed up in your game. For some dogs, receiving a NRM is more stressful than helpful. If you see indications that your foster pup is taking her mistakes a little too much to heart and is starting to get discouraged (yes, dogs can feel that way too!), drop the NRM from your training repertoire for that dog.

Proofing

Proofing a behavior means practicing it in new contexts with progressively increasing distractions. Think of it as practicing a solo for a performance at Carnegie Hall: you'd start out by learning the piece in your own home, then playing it in a small private recital, then in gradually bigger and more public venues, and then finally, only when you knew the piece forwards and backwards and it was as comfortable as your own breathing, out there in Carnegie Hall.

You wouldn't jump straight from muddling through a song once in your living room to performing a halftime show at the Super Bowl, yet many people expect their dogs to do just that, and are disappointed when the dogs freeze or screw up.

Fortunately, proofing is relatively simple. All you have to do is practice. Start by practicing in different rooms of your home. Once your dog is performing the desired behavior reliably there, ask him to do it in a quiet area outside, or during a walk in a familiar neighborhood. Gradually build up to less familiar, more distracting environments. Never penalize a dog for being unable to perform in a new place: he's telling you that he's not ready for this level yet, and that's a message to be respected. Be patient.

Also practice with new people issuing commands. It's not too helpful if your foster dog listens to you perfectly but blows off prospective adopters who ask her to Sit or walk with them at adoption events -- yet this is what might happen if you accustom her to listening to you and only you. Get friends and family to help you train the dog by asking her to perform cues she already knows well and rewarding her for doing so. (As a side bonus, this spreads the word that you have a great, well-trained foster dog who's just about ready for adoption.)

There are some behaviors (most notably Down and the tricks that build off of Down, such as Play Dead and Roll Over) that are especially difficult for dogs to perform in new environments, because they put the dog in a vulnerable position. Given the limited time that you have to work with a foster dog, it may not be possible to proof those tricks to a performance level before you have to pass the dog on to her adopters. For this reason, I prefer to focus on tricks that are easier for most dogs to perform in strange, noisy places... such as adoption events.

Fading

"Fading" is a term used to mean a couple of different things, but they are all related to the same core concept: phase out the treats before your foster dog becomes so reliant on them that she won't perform unless she can actually see the bribe right there in your hand.

Owen, a German Shepherd pulled from Robeson County Animal Shelter, North Carolina, by Paw Prints Animal Rescue in January 2012

When you're luring a behavior, stop showing the treat as soon as you can. Fade it to a treat hidden in a closed hand, then a closed empty hand, then an open empty hand, then eventually no gesture at all. The dog should always get a treat after performing to your satisfaction, but you shouldn't have to literally dangle it in front of her nose for more than the first few attempts at something. (Teaching your dog hand targeting makes this progression go a lot faster, but you probably won't have time to get there with a foster dog, so for our purposes, I'll assume that most of the time you're starting out with an actual lure and will need to fade it out gradually.)

Once your dog has learned a cue (defined as performing it correctly 80% of the time or better when prompted), stop rewarding him for every correct performance and only click/reward the best three out of five or so. Also, change up the rewards so that you're using different kinds of treats, or different rewards altogether (toys, games, petting, praise). Intermittent rewards actually motivate a dog to work harder, because the unpredictable payoff is more exciting than the same-old same-old of getting the same treat every single time.

Get in the habit of hiding your treats. I mentioned this back in the Supplies section, but one of the main drawbacks of using a bait bag all the time is that some dogs stop working when they can see that you're not wearing the bait bag. To avoid this problem, hide the bait bag in a pocket or don't use it too often. (Most commercial treats, like Zuke's Tricky Trainers or cut-up Wellness Pure jerky treats, won't make a mess in your pocket. Designate a few sweatshirts or pairs of jeans as your "dog training clothes" and let 'em get a little dirty.) Change up which pocket you use, too, so you're not always reaching for the same one as a giveaway that a treat is forthcoming. Keep treats in different locations of your house so that you can prompt for behaviors in various rooms and quickly produce a surprise when your foster pup complies.

Attention, Please!

As soon as your foster dog arrives and has had a chance to settle in, start your training program. Most dogs seem to learn the fastest and retain the most information when taught in multiple short sessions (about 3 to 15 minutes) scattered over the course of a day. In the very beginning, your foster dog may not be able to focus on lessons for more than a minute at a time -- if he's a hyper Jack Russell or independent Siberian husky, maybe not even for more than 15 to 30 seconds. That's okay. Building attention is a training exercise in itself.

The foundation exercise that I call "Attention, Please!" is actually a combination of several things: priming the clicker, teaching the dog to respond to his new name (most foster pups don't know theirs, since they received that name on intake at the shelter and didn't have much occasion to respond to it), encouraging the dog to focus on you-the-trainer, and slowly increasing his attention span.

That sounds like a lot, but it is actually very simple. All you do is say the dog's name, and click/treat when he turns to look at you. Click and treat any motion in your direction at first. Then hold out for eye contact. Then hold out for sustained eye contact of 2 to 5 seconds. Then move a few steps away and hold out for eye contact plus the dog approaching you.

Once you get that far, take a break and reward the dog with some petting or ball tosses or a quick game of tug. This is a good opportunity to assess what toys and activities your new foster dog seems to enjoy most (because later you'll want to use these as alternate rewards) and just make the whole experience of training more fun. After a few minutes of playing, do another couple of rounds of Attention, Please! and call it a day before your dog loses interest.