Are you serious about clicker training or just fiddling around?
When I was ten, I took violin lessons from a little, old Austrian woman, named Wilhemina Kent. I had been playing piano since the age of 5 and violin since I turned seven. Each week I would do just about everything rather than practice violin and then try to "wing it" at my lessons. Though I was often capable of playing the songs and exercises as if I had practiced, I doubt that I ever fooled my teacher. She seemed to know that I had not really worked very hard at my lessons. She was reluctant to scold me directly, but continued to tell me that practice was a critical part of learning. "Only after you master your fingers will you be able to master the violin, " she would say. She was right.
Another major lesson from Mrs. Kent was equally incomprehensible to my ten-year-old brain. Each week I was given at least two songs from different styles or genre's of music. I might have to learn a simplified melody from a Bach violin concerto, a John Philip Souza march or an Irish Fiddle tune. Like any normal child, I enjoyed some songs and chafed at others. My practicing was directly related to how much I liked a particular song.
"Learning to do only what you like is easy and lazy." She said. "You must play many different things if you want to learn the violin - often things that don't interest you."
After a total of seven years of playing violin, at the age of 14 I stopped taking lessons, stopped practicing and stopped playing the instrument. Mrs. Kent's wisdom seemed entirely behind me. Then one day, when I was fifteen, I was in a Sears store, waiting to buy some butter toffee peanuts. As I waited to be served, I happened to see a 5-string, bluegrass-style banjo. For whatever reason, I simply had to have that banjo. From that time forward, I was thrust back into Mrs. Kent's world of learning to play a musical instrument. I forced myself to master my fingers and sometimes play songs I didn't really like. I spent hundreds of hours playing repetitive phrases over and over. The songs I learned came from many different sources and some were really boring - but they were songs that all bluegrass musicians played. When I came upon an aspect of the instrument that I didn't like or was difficult to do, I found myself specifically spending additional time to learn it. While it is painfully obvious now, my teen-age self didn't really figure out what was happening. The teacher that I had so resented for "forcing" me to practice and learn in a systematic fashion was controlling almost everything about my method of becoming proficient with this new instrument.
If you are wondering what all this has to do with clicker training, it's simple. While we expect our animals to cheerfully dedicate themselves to learning anything we choose to teach them, we are often reluctant to imitate their diligence or enthusiasm. When I see people who can't comfortably hold a clicker and a target stick in one hand, or hold the stick as they would a fly swatter, I know they haven't spent much time working on fundamentals. When I hear trainers say "when I try to vary the reinforcement, my dog quits after a few repetitions," I know that person has spent pitifully little time building a good training foundation. These are not people who are likely to succeed at clicker training - they are more likely looking for a "quick fix" or a free ride. Mrs. Kent would tell them they must master their fingers before they can master the clicker.
Perhaps the single most important aspect of learning clicker training is broad experience. At a recent seminar I gave, the promoters insisted on offering an additional evening for "advanced" trainers. As I began the seminar, I asked "how many of you have clicker trained more than two dogs?" Of the 50 people there, only one raised her hand. During the course of the evening, I saw people who didn't have a clue about how to hold or use a target stick, others who clicked late and early or had no idea how to vary the reinforcement. Regardless of their prior knowledge, many of these "advanced" trainers didn't have any clicker training skills to build on. They were not even good beginners, because they already assumed two things that our violin examples contradict -- 1) If you have many years of traditional training behind you, you don't have to put in the long hours with clicker training in order to be good at it. Mrs. Kent would say... "Just because your fingers can play a piano doesn't mean you know diddly about violin." (Other than the word, "diddly", that is a verbatim quote. 2) Training a dog you are familiar with gives you enough experience to be "advanced." From the music perspective, playing only your own personal instrument does not give you the broad knowledge necessary to allow you to expand the limits of your play and the instrument's full capabilities.
For myself, that little old Austrian war-bride remains alive in my memory. Not surprisingly, when I started using clicker training in my business, I used the same methods to perfect my skills. I realize that expert level performance requires routine practice,(even if I still don't want to do it) critical evaluation and continued learning - there ain't no free lunch, no matter how "advanced" you may feel.
If you are just getting started with clicker training or are willing to admit that you haven't quite mastered your fingers yet, here are some of Mrs. Kent's special thought's on how to improve your skills.
1) Learn how to hold a target stick and clicker in the same hand. Once you can hold it correctly, place it on a table and pick it up. Repeat this exercise 100 times. Gradually increase your speed. Pick them up and put them down, again and again. Pretend you are a western quick-draw artist.
2) Toss a ball in the air - click as it hits the top of the arc and when it hits the ground. Video tape the training session and critique your timing.
3) Now that you can pick up the stick and clicker correctly, and your clicker timing is great, combine exercises 1 and 2. Toss the ball in the air and point the target stick at it. Click at the instant the ball is at the top its arc and when it hits the ground. To stretch your skill, start throwing it against a wall to make it bounce crazily or have an assistant throw the ball in unpredictable ways.
4) Train ten different dogs to do the same behavior. There is no better way to get better at clicker training than to train dogs you don't know - especially in the atmosphere of a shelter, where about 40% of them won't take a treat or pay attention to you at all. If nothing else, it will knock the "clicker euphoria" out of you - which is worth a great deal to your future knowledge. Convince your local shelter staff that you will train their dogs to be more adoptable if they will let you spend time training their dogs to follow target sticks, learn the names of objects, heel, down, stay, etc. Your task is to go down a line of kennels, clicker training the same behavior, dog after dog. Make sure each dog knows how to greet people politely and knows at least one cute trick. This will allow you to have a ready group of pupils and a tremendous opportunity to master the process.
5) Teach a behavior with a clicker and then teach it "the old fashioned way" with the same dog an/or different dogs. If you have never trained using traditional methods, it's about time you learned what it's all about. If you are a cross-over trainer who has long years of traditional training under your belt, it still helps to compare the two methods, side by side. The purpose of this exercise is not to prove that one is better than the other, but to get your brain thinking about the differences between the two. Mrs. Kent used to say, "No one needs a violin in a marching band." That translates to mean, not every behavior is easier with a clicker. Not every dog is easier to train with a clicker. Unless you look into it yourself, you won't know for sure.
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