Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Clicker Expo 2011 (Chicago): Cecilie Koste- Efficient (Clicker) Training

Ever feel like you're stuck in your training? Like you should be able to make more progress with your dog than you actually are? Afraid that you might be doing something to impede your dog's learning? Do you want to increase your skills with marking and reinforcing behaviors? Then settle in, because this is a summary of Norwegian clicker-trainer extraordinaire Cecilie Koste's presentation on how to harness the power of clicker training!

Cecilie talked about many things that good trainers do, but I think the secret lies with establishing a training routine. Cecilie has four stages in every training session: think- plan- do- pause (and think again). Before you does anything with your dog, you should think about your goals, both for the long-term and for the immediate session. What do you want to work on right now, in this moment? Once you've decided, it's time to plan the session. Planning the session is about more than just choosing the criteria; here are some things you'll want to think about:

Your Voice
I would venture a guess that Cecilie thinks one of the most important skills is to be quiet! She said that you should let your clicker, and your clicker alone, do the talking. The click is information, and when you talk during training, you blur the message.

This doesn't mean you can't praise your dog, though. In fact, Cecilie encourages praise; she said a good trainer is generous with reinforcement, and that you can increase the value of a treat by adding in praise, play or petting. I was glad to hear this- I have a very difficult time not talking to my dog. I just get so excited when she does something correctly! Cecilie just said that if you're going to talk, you should be sure to wait at a second or two after the click so you don't overshadow it.

Your Body Language
Being quiet applies to your body, too. A good trainer will think about how she is holding her body- especially her hands- because you don't want to confuse your dog with a lot of extraneous movement. I'm notoriously bad at this- I'm always using my body to prompt responses from Maisy! While this helps her in the short-term, I do think it hinders her from truly understanding the behavior in the long run. As Cecilie pointed out, it has caused her to be dependent on my body language. Worse yet, I'm not really conscious of what I'm doing, so I can't even replicate the body cues that Maisy is reading!

Similarly, be sure that you don't reach for a reinforcer until after the click. If you reach and click at the same time, your dog will probably pay more attention to your hands than your clicker. Some dogs will even interpret your hand movements as the marker! If this happens and you don't know it, your timing will be off, which could have a detrimental effect on the final behavior.

Your Teaching Method
Cecilie said you should shape, not lure, whenever possible. Shaping makes you a better trainer; it forces you to improve your observation and timing skills. It also makes your dog an active participant in the training. Cecilie wants the dog to initiate the session by offering a behavior, instead of the trainer having to prompt the behavior. Thus, you should think about how you could shape the behavior you want to teach, and lure only as a last resort.

Personally, I mix and match. Some behaviors are just easier to lure, and if I'm anything, it's a lazy trainer. While I appreciate that Cecilie's goal is a thinking, active dog, I certainly haven't had a problem with Maisy being willing to offer behaviors (and all of her initial training was taught through lure-reward). Still, I think it's wise to think about what method you'll use to teach a given behavior, and consider how it may impact the end result.

Your Reinforcement
Whether you are using play or food, you should always plan what the reinforcer will be and how you will present it. The way you reinforce the dog can reset him for the next repetition, can get his head or body in a certain position or facing a particular direction, and can even encourage proper chaining of behaviors. Play will increase arousal and put more intensity into the final product, while treats usually reduce arousal, and create a more restrained behavior. Decide what you want, and reward accordingly.

I try really hard to do this. For behaviors that require speed and enthusiasm, I will toss treats or throw her ball. For behaviors that require duration, I reward in place. I've definitely found that Maisy will anticipate the location of the reinforcer, and that I can use this to my advantage. It can also work to my disadvantage, so I know that I need to plan how to deliver that treat!

Now you're ready to train! The most important thing you can do during training is to be focused on your dog. Pretend that you're stepping into a bubble with your dog: all of your attention should be on him. During your training session, your dog should either be offering a behavior or being rewarded for a behavior. If you're distracted or not really paying attention, you will miss clickable moments, which might slow down your dog's learning.

It's okay to stop and take breaks. In fact, you should take breaks so you can evaluate your progress. Just be sure it's clear to your dog when he's supposed to be working, and when he's off duty! Cecilie recommended using a station, like a crate, mat or pedestal so your dog understands that he doesn't need to be offering a behavior. I really like this concept. I've tried using verbal cues to tell Maisy that she's on a break, but using a station seems to be so much more concrete and easy for her to understand. It also seems like this idea would help create an “off-switch,” especially if you used a crate as the station. This would especially be the case if you waited for signs of relaxation or self-control before doing another round of training.

Once you're done evaluating your progress, make a new plan, and train again! If you're planning well, you should see progress in each session. If you're not, then you need to figure out why that is. Are you using your voice or body in a way that interferes with your dog's learning? Is your reinforcement timing or placement affecting things? Is the teaching method slowing things down? Think about it, and then try again.

And that's the quick-and-dirty version of how Cecilie trains efficiently. Some of the material was familiar, and some of it was new to me. But what about you- can you identify any ways you slow down your dog's ability to learn things? Or maybe you do something awesome? Either way, please share your experiences! I'd love to hear what you do to ensure you're making progress towards your training goals!


WonderPupsMom said...

This was just what I needed as I've been feeling "stuck" lately and was not able to attend Clicker Expo! Thanks!

Try videotaping yourself during a training session so that you can see those hand/body movements that you're not aware of. Seeing it helps me to remain still in future sessions.


Crystal Thompson said...

Yes! Videotape (or an observant friend) is a lifesaver for these kind of things. I hate watching video of myself, but it's always EVER so informative.

Ninso said...

Great post! Training always goes so much better when I have a plan!

Sophie said...

That's really interesting (and informative, as always)!

I do agree that you should praise your dog, especially for breakthroughs; I'm guilty of often just using the clicker, and after 8 or so clicks with no verbal feedback, Lola gets visibly affected and offers slower, sometimes even sluggish attempts at whatever I'm after. Getting her excited through treats, play and praise keeps her 'in the game'.

However, there are times when you can't give your dog verbal feedback (as in competitive obedience), and if you're working to that sort of goal I think you should include, at least once every two or three training sessions, a few reps where you give your cue and simply reward, interspersed with reps where the dog is hugely fussed over. You don't want a dog that offers slower responses in a formal situation because they are used to heaps of praise! Obviously this doesn't really apply to the early stages of training a brand-new behaviour, but I do think it's important to start doing that quickly.

Crystal Thompson said...

Sophie, I don't know that Cecilie would say you should/must praise your dog- she had several slides that emphasized being quiet while training. Since she competes, I suspect that part of her reason for being quiet during training is as you note- the dog needs to learn how to work through silence.

Very interesting that Lola becomes sluggish without praise, though.