I’ve spent a lot of time over the last week thinking about no reward markers and keep going signals. In fact, I’ve thought so much about it, that I just had to post about it again.
In the comments to my last post on this topic, the point came up that there is a huge difference between shaping and competition. This is absolutely true. Shaping is about teaching a new skill, while competition is about testing a skill which is, presumably, under stimulus control. This means that you can’t really compare how a dog interprets silence from the learning stage to the performing stage; they’re two completely different contexts.
More than that, though, I realized I was also asking the wrong question entirely. When it comes to shaping, the question should not be How does my dog interpret silence? Instead, the question should be Why is there silence at all?
Think about that for a moment.
Now think about your last shaping session with your dog. How much silence was there? And why was there that much silence? For my last session, there was about thirty seconds of silence. Why was there that much silence? Well, because Maisy didn’t meet my criteria, of course.
But is that true?
My job as a clicker trainer is two-fold: split the task down into many small steps, and give a high rate of reinforcement when my criteria is met. These two things are interrelated. If a task is properly broken down into small, achievable steps, your rate of reinforcement will naturally be quite high. Likewise, the inverse is true: if you lump the steps together by setting the criteria too high, it will take your dog longer to figure it out, and thus your rate of reinforcement will be lower.
So why was there that much silence? Because I failed to do my job as a trainer. I lumped when I should have split.
Clicker training is difficult to master. To be a truly efficient trainer, you need to not only be able to split the task up into small steps, but you also need to be able to analyze your dog’s response, assess whether that means your criteria is too high, too low, or just right, and then adjust that criteria… and you need to be able to do all of that in a matter of seconds!
Thankfully, clicker training is also easy to learn. Even if you never move beyond the basic "click the behavior you like and give your dog a treat" stage, your dog will still learn. That's what I love about clicker training: regardless of your skill level, it has something to offer to everyone.