Clicker training and Margaret H. Bonham’s Introduction to Dog Agility. 2nd ed. 2009.
August 5, 2012 § Leave a comment
I have been enjoying learning agility with my young dog Tuhi for a few months now. She is a highly energetic collie x huntaway, and really just needed a job. We tried other dog sports, like obedience, but neither of us are doing the ‘obedience’ word very well. Also, for my dog training, I want to learn to work with my dog, and I love clicker training and shaping in order to teach Tuhi to think for herself, rather than just follow my ‘commands’. Clicker training is a great tool for us to discover just how much a dog can do. I want a friend, not a slave, so a lot of the traditional dog training that works on the premise that the dog has to obey your commands, no matter what, doesn’t really make sense to me.
So, clicker training and working with ‘cues’ rather than commands it is for Tuhi and me. In clicker training, a cue is not a command or an order. It is a stimulus signaling that offering a specific behaviour may earn a reward. Clicker training is based on scientific learning theory (and mostly on operant and classical conditioning) and uses positive reinforcement, showing the dog the behaviours that work. If the dog doesn’t do the ‘right’ thing, nothing bad happens other than that either nothing happens (extinction) or that the opportunity for a reward disappears (negative punishment). Eva Bertilsson and Emelie Johnson Vegh in their fantastic book Agility Right From the Start give a great, short description of clicker training:
1) reward what’s’ right’
2) ignore what’s ‘wrong’
3) create situations where your dog is likely to get it right.
This is also what dog training generally boils down to, at least for me.
When Tuhi and I first stumbled into an agility class, Tuhi loved it and I was immediately hooked by the fun we had together. There is nothing like the huge grin on both human and dog faces when a team has just learned tackling a new obstacle together.
Anyway, lots and lots to learn (mostly for me to get my footwork right), and I’ve been looking for books and material to help. I’ll write reviews about the things I read and DVDs I watch to support our training as I go. The first book I read about dog agility was Margaret Bonham’s Introduction to Dog Agility. I didn’t think it was great, or particularly useful for our own agility training, but still one can learn from everything, so here is my review of the book.
It is a manual-style introduction to agility and how to teach your dog agility, which doesn’t go very much into the details of dog (& human) learning. There are however some ideas, or rather assumptions, that made me wonder and think, particularly after recently having read some other books on dog behaviour.
What I found interesting was the point Bonham makes about that teaching agility is learning the obstacles and learning handling and sequencing, for both the dog and the human. She emphasises a lot that agility is a team sport and that both dog and human need to learn to work as a team.
It is on this background that she introduces some positive reinforcement training techniques, including clicker training. But all of this remains relatively general, on the level of get the behaviour and reward. I do, however, like how she bases everything she says about training on the law of primacy, that once a student (human or animal) learns something (correct or not), that lesson stays with the student. “The secret of dog training”, she says, “is to teach the appropriate behavior the first time” and not to give the dog a chance to fail. It reminds me what I have read of clicker training in Karen Pryor’s Reaching the Animal Mind, and I think it makes similarly the point that we need to think through our training techniques and goals, rather than simply expect a certain behaviour from the dog without understanding the processes of learning behind it.
In the opening to the section on “Sequencing and handling” Bonham talks about the need in agility to establish a rhythm between you and your dog. I like this idea, because it is all about learning to watch one’s dog and “listen” to it. Bad runs in agility are most often the handler’s fault. The handler might not have trained the dog properly, signalled the dog incorrectly and confused the dog. Or the handler might have asked the dog something they haven’t learned yet, not understood completely yet, or is incapable of doing (because it is tired or sore, or hot and needs a drink or feel sick). This is a good reminder that training a dog is a lot about knowing the dog well enough to understand it’s nature and how it feels. All of this, as Bonham keeps pointing out, is part of developing good handling practices and to avoid bad techniques, and it takes time and practice. For me that is the most crucial point. Dog training is about developing skills and learning, for both dogs and humans, it takes time, and it will create a relationship that has to be respected. Too many people I see expect instant fixes and instant behaviour—and only often from the dog’s side. And, finally, Bonham emphasises fun as a crucial part of handling practices and skills. Agility as a team sport should be fun together, and not just pushed through from the human’s competitive expectations. Again, it is important to learn to “listen” to the dog. As part of this, the book offers sections with useful information on such important issues as nutrition and pain for the agility dog.
Bonham doesn’t talk about all of this in too much detail beyond the introductory—and as someone rather new to dog training I find myself wanting more details and more “showing”. But it does set me thinking, and there is a video and blog entry by Patricia McConnell which for me demonstrates the above: the importance of “honouring your dog”. The video is McConnell exercising with her dog in preparation for surgery, and it shows how she is paying attention to the dog’s messages and limitations, ie. where he shows that he is uncomfortable or maybe in pain.
This leads me to what I disagreed with in the book or was surprised by. It left many questions for me about the details of learning and training generally, and more particularly about the relationship between positive reinforcement and correction. Bonham talks a lot about the need for correction; she also says, “Always enforce a command” (40). I’ve just been reading Karen Pryor’s Reaching the Animal Mind. So it strikes me that after all the talk of positive reinforcement Bonham ends up talking about commands again, and about enforcing them. I wonder what the “right” way to enforce would be? What struck me most in Pryor’s book is the point about avoiding poisoning a cue—and the relationship with the dog. There is a photo twice in the Bonham book of a man “enforcing” a “sit” by standing right over the dog, pulling upright on the dog’s collar, and pushing down the dog’s rear with his hand. It’s in the back cover and it is inside the book in the training section and captioned with “Training a dog using positive methods is fun and rewarding for both you and your dog” (38). I would have probably never noticed this before, but after reading Karen Pryor’s book this now really grates with me, “making” the dog sit.
The question of physical corrections, punishment, and the like really bugs me and constantly challenges my thinking about dog training. From what I have seen in books and in training classes at various clubs and places there still is a lot of physical corrections in positive reinforcement training. My understanding of positive reinforcement training is that there is no use of aversives of any form. In a way that makes it much harder for us because we need to prepare our training plans and control the learning situations so much more carefully in order to set up the dog for success. And it might take longer. And dogs among themselves use punishment and aversives, don’t they. So maybe we should? Maybe, but in my case, I don’t speak dog language very well, so I better leave that alone. And every time I see a dog in a class or at agility working with its human partner and looking keen and confident and like pure happiness that happened to have taken form in the shape of a dog, and then I see a dog trying to work with its human and getting yanked on the lead or yelled at and crumble into a confused heap I know that my way in dog training is to learn enough about dogs and their learning to not need any aversives.
Bertilsson, Eva and Emelie Johnson Vegh. Agility Right From the Start: The Ultimate Training Guide to America’s Fastest Growing Dog Sport. Sunshine Books Inc. 2010.
Patricia McConnell, The Other End of the Leash Blog: Willie’s exercises and honoring your dog.
Karen Pryor Clicker Training — http://www.clickertraining.com