Clicker Training the Rescue Dog

Sue put the clicker in a little box. She tied a ribbon around it, wrapped it in plastic, and buried the whole caboodle in Nigel’s pot plant.  Then she gave him strict instructions not to unearth it until it was clear that Annie was ready for another try.

The next step was to find out whether Annie would work for food treats, and if so, for what kind of treat.  Nigel was instructed to go shopping and come home with the widest variety of potential dog treats he could find.  He bought roast chicken, more boerewors, bits of cheese, pieces of fruit, every dog biscuit treat on the shelf, several brands of vienna sausage, cat kibble, bird seed, peanut butter sweets, you name it.

Then he and Sue set Annie up.  One morning they deprived her of breakfast and kept her out of the kitchen.  Nigel then scattered tiny bits of various treats on the kitchen floor.  He and Sue let Annie into the kitchen and watched her through the serving hatch.

Annie went straight for the cheese and gobbled it, ignored the chicken, sniffed the cat kibble and ate some, ate one brand of dog biscuit and left another one, and really took to pieces of dried mango!  Without anyone in the kitchen waving their arms around and fussing, Annie was free to concentrate on deciding what it was she wanted to sample, and her body language demonstrated that she was free of any anxiety.

Sue and Nigel made notes, divided the treats into high value, medium value and boooooring!!!, and then made up two mixes, one of high value treats and one of the less interesting but stll enjoyable stuff. 

The next step was to install a different conditioned reinforcer in such a way as not to distress Annie. Sue gave Nigel strict instructions, and then went home so that Annie would not be perturbed by her presence.  Nigel prepared about 40 treats from a mixture of the high and medium value lists.  He waited until just before Annie’s supper time, so she hadn’t had anything to eat for several hours and was fairly hungry.  Then he took her into the kitchen, which was quite large and had a linileum floor.

He said "Bingo" in a neutral tone of voice and then tossed a treat onto the floor, more or less in Annie’s direction.  He was careful not to raise his voice, make a fuss of her or wave his arms around, and Annie was able to pick the treat up off the floor instead of having to take it from a hand.  She picked up and ate the treats with great enthusiasm.

After she had had 20 or so treats, Nigel said "Bingo" and didn’t throw the next one.  Annie looked up expectantly, waiting for her treat.  The word "bingo" had been successfully conditioned as a conditioned reinforcer, and was now becoming something Annie would work for.  

Nigel continued saying "Bingo" and tossing treats until they were all used up.  Later that evening, while reading a book, he noticed Annie meander across the living room and sit on the mat near the TV.  He immediately said "Bingo" and tossed her a high-value treat (which he had craftily hidden under a book on the coffee table.)  Annie looked startled and pleased, and then thoughtful, and then she sat again, Nigel said "Bingo" again and tossed her another treat, and they were off.

And this, of course, is how the clicker should have been conditioned in the first place – with great care and thought to ensure that the desired associations were being made, and the wrong ones avoided.

As it happened, Annie enjoyed working so much that it was soon possible to counter-condition the clicker as as a pleasurable stimulus, which made things much easier for Nigel.  And in many cases where the dog is not too badly traumatised, repeated and prolonged exposure to training situations in which nothing too awful happens will result in the dog becoming less fearful (the technical term for this is flooding). 

But why slow the process down and put the dog through any unnecessary distress?  With a little more thought on the part of the trainer, Annie could have been working happily for the clicker from day one.


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