Targeting - Your second most important tool.
When I was about seven, my parents made a decision that they would come to regret - they let me take violin lessons. One of the horrible side effects of learning the violin is the "Gawdawful" made during practice. My first efforts as a violinist sounded about like a Bull Terrier at a cat show. That's when I learned about "fundamentals."
Fundamental behaviors are best described as the essential or foundational skills necessary to learn and perform an activity. Often, fundamental behaviors are intended as stepping-stones to more complex behaviors. For instance, before you can read and write you must master the alphabet and a pencil. One of the important fundamental elements of clicker training is "targeting."
Targeting is the process of triggering instinctive behaviors by controlling a dog's focus. The most common use of targeting is "luring" -- where the trainer uses a small piece of food to focus the dog's attention and thereby trigger a desired behavior. This ancient method precedes the Pharaohs - and has survived for thousands of years for one simple reason - it works. While food luring has some limitations, it was far superior to earlier methods of brute force.
While food luring has its place in the trainer's kit-bag, it has several obvious drawbacks.
1) It doesn't work well at a distance.
2) The animal may never be able to perform the desired behavior without looking for the treats.
3) The dog's enthusiasm may drop off severely any time he discovers that the food lure is lacking.
4) When using food for distance work, it is tough to prevent the dog from getting the reinforcement of the food, even if he does the behavior incorrectly.
To overcome these limitations without losing the essence of targeting is pretty simple. Instead of using actual food as the lure, we need a target that can't be eaten. That's where a "target stick" comes in handy.
Target Stick Basics: Over 20 years ago, I developed training methods that relied heavily on non-food targets. Back then, I provided my clients with my first attempt at a production model target stick. My "Model T" was a 30" piece of ½" PVC. I coated the end cap with liquid vinyl for contrast and safety. My next model was a 3/8" wooden dowel with a rubber furniture tips glued on the end. I eventually came up with the collapsible, anodized aluminum target sticks that are now popular, but don't fool yourself - the art is in the trainer's hands, not in the material of the tool. To quote Jon Lindberg, a branch from an apple tree can work just as well. So, if you don't already have a target stick, get thee to a home improvement center and make one. Don't bother about making it collapsible - if you need to fold it up often, you aren't using it enough.
Holding a Target Stick: With your dominant hand, circle your thumb and forefinger into a classic "OK" sign. Put the clicker between your thumb and forefinger, while leaving your other three fingers extended. Grasp the stick with your remaining three fingers. This allows you to hold the clicker and stick in the same hand. Now rotate your wrist so that the stick is pointing straight down, as if you were stirring a pot with a skinny spoon. OK, you're ready.
Introducing the stick: There are a number of dogs who are initially frightened by a target stick. This is not an indication that the dog has been beaten. Dogs that are leery of target sticks are usually just reacting to an unusual object that needs to be investigated cautiously. To avoid getting off to a poor start, here are three ways to introduce the stick.
1) Hold the stick so that the tip is barely peaking out of your fist, with the rest of the stick pointing away from the dog. Slowly extend your fist toward your dog's nose -- click and treat if the dog investigates the tip or your fist. Over a series of repetitions, gradually extend the stick so that the tip becomes more and more visible. Continue until the dog is comfortable with seeing the stick in your hand. Gently integrate movement into the process so that a moving target stick is a "good thing."
2) Place the stick on the ground and put a treat under the tip. As the dog investigates, click, just before the dog gobbles the treat. After a few repetitions, hold the other end of the stick and lift it slightly off the ground. Continue to place treats under the tip as you raise the other end. Once you are sure the dog is comfortable with the stick, raise the tip off the ground. The dog is quite likely to investigate the tip - click and treat.
3) Smear a bit of hot dog or peanut butter on the tip of the stick and let the dog lick it off. Click and treat periodically, and replenish the peanut butter as needed.
Once the dog is comfortable with the stick, we'll start with some targeting fundamentals. First, hold the stick so that the tip is up in the air. Gradually lower the tip so that it is slightly above the dog's nose and a little to one side. Now be still and don't move. Give it at least 30 seconds. If the dog moves toward the tip, click and treat, even if the dog doesn't go all the way. Repeat this until the behavior is on a short cycle, like 5 seconds.
Here's the sequence:
1) Hold the tip in the air, or hide it behind your back, so that the dog can't touch it - say "Touch".
2) Bring the tip down (or bring it out from behind your back) near, and slightly above the dog's nose and hold it still.
4) The dog bumps the tip.
5) Click & Treat.
If the dog makes an error during these trials, say "wrong" or "sorry" or your choice of sounds to indicate the error and put the tip up, out of reach - this tells the dog "end of behavior", no treat. Make sure you don't say the "wrong" word with any inflection - it's supposed to be informative, not discouraging.
Now that you have the basic behavior happening, it's time to stretch your dog's knowledge. Take a small object, like a baseball hat and place it on the floor. Begin the session with the stick behind your back, out of sight. Say "Touch" and then touch the object with the tip of the target stick. As the dog touches the tip, and the hat, click and treat. Do this about 10 times, quickly. On repetition eleven, leave the stick behind your back and say "Touch." Wait for at least 30 seconds. If you have built enough momentum into the behavior, your dog will probably move toward the hat - click and treat for any movement in the right direction! Continue this process until the dog will consistently touch the object when the target stick is not visible.
Once the dog will consistently "touch" the object, it is time to make the behavior a little tougher. After one of the repetitions, take a step backward. This places you one step away from the target. On the next attempt, as the dog touches the hat, click and then put the treat on the ground, right between your feet. (If you don't want your dog to take food from the ground, offer the treat from your hand, instead.) As the dog finishes the treat, say "Touch" (or "Hat", if you choose) and wait, quietly. After a few seconds, the dog will go and bump the hat or at least start in that direction. Click and treat for any movement toward the hat. On the next try, take another step backward as the dog is moving away from you and toward the hat. Over a series of repetitions, the target will be imperceptibly farther and farther away. Now pat yourself and your dog on the back. This is the fundamental behavior that we will use to teach a "go-out."
Over several training sessions, practice this behavior until your dog can touch the hat across the room, or across the yard. In a later column, we'll see how "touch" can lead to a very reliable "find." Next article - transferring this fundamental behavior to its proper setting.
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