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Deep into the woods

December 19, 2011

Since the dawn of dog training the old joke reminds us that the only thing dog trainers can agree on is that their training method in the best one. The fact that this joke exists should send red warning flags to the innocents walking in our woods. It becomes increasingly difficult to know which method is “right”, and whether it will suit the dog, the situation and trainer’s skills.

My  decade of travelling to many different training facilities have given me a expansive view of the outcomes lots and lots of different methods and their variations. Personally I would not wish to begin to try to research through the forest of books all claiming astonishing result if you follow Their Way. There is an overwhelming choice.

To begin your first step is to find a training adviser with whom you share the same ethical platform. You may need to review several of their protocols to establish the location of that platform since their location may not be obvious, and in some cases it can “wander” about. This often occurs when they lack a solution for a particular exercise and have regurgitated traditional thinking. This should ring warning bells, an ethical platform should go across the whole of their advice. If anything you read makes you uncomfortable, then put the book back to resell. If you are going to invest your dog’s training or your training career in a particular methodology make sure that the adviser (read: Author, Expert, Guru here, with tongue in cheek), has an extensive background in using that method personally and has also taught it to many other person/dog partnerships. The “theory of how this should work” is simply not good enough. You want a solution that has an excellent road history, not only by the adviser but many other people with different skills and different dogs. You want a method that has been tried and tested, generalised and put through the idiot filter and still survived. Some methods are very specific to the trainer’s skills and extremely difficult to replicate if you do not have those skills. These are often the instinctive trainers, very talented, great results but will often teach “this is how I do it” rather than through knowledge and understanding.

My reliable analogy for dog training is the world of cooking. At one end we have the professionals making a successful living, running a business, training apprentices, publishing books, and at the other end the part time enthusiasts who need some quick solutions. We also have the neglectful participants who regard food as a necessity and their microwave more essential than the stove (Me). Equally the dog world has those same professionals and neglectful owners who wish they could engage with their dog in the same fashion as the stand-by microwave. Until the last couple of decades much of the non-professional access to cooking was by recipe books, the science behind the process was explored and researched by the specialists, and we relied on their sharing skills through the recipes. As much as a loaf of bread comes in many different forms, so does the dog training solution.

Following recipes, for training or for cakes, will stifle creativity and independent thinking. If I  wish to cook a pie I still read the packet’s instructions for the oven temperature and duration. After 30 years of shop bought pie cooking, I still have not learned why some pies need longer cooking than others. I do not understand enough of the science to be a creative or independent cook. Each solution or recipe will suit different needs, or different “palettes”. It now becomes our job to have sufficient knowledge to sift through these recipes and find the solution to suit our dog.

The growth of comparison websites has filled a need for an expert, or person with knowledge and understanding, to voice their opinion on what is available be it in digital cameras or web hosting. Recently I have used a webinar comparison website, since I did not know enough about what makes the strong points and the weaknesses of the functionality of these services. Extremely useful. Maybe one day someone will have the energy and expertise to build a dog training methods comparison website (hint hint). I have listed here some examples of training protocols with their strengths and weaknesses, and then a list of simple questions that you can use as a check list before you jump in.

 1. Treat in hand drawn away from the body. Click for looking at your face.

This was an early strategy when clicker training was in its first growth stage. Teaching the dog to not mug your hand holding the treats, and also establish an understanding that going away from the treat gets the treat. The “zen” of operant conditioning. The early days of clicker training were working hard to move people away from the lure-cue, “sit, Good sit” type of protocols and this exercise did a pivotal job demonstrating that it was the click that the dog tried to trigger, not the begging for food that the lure protocols stimulated.

The principle is sound but this particular application will leave you with a dog that will avoid looking at this hand movement. If taught well, this means the dog can become blind to hand signals, always staring at the face. This will restrict you to verbal cues only. This may be a disadvantage if you want to cue your dog with “choreographic gestures”. Our faces are notoriously shut down in expression, and you will often see a dog move backwards to be able to see the whole of us to understand what we are asking. They look at our posture, the placement of our shoulders relative to our hips, our intent, our energy, speed of gestures, angle of the head etc. Restriction for face only communication can leave a dog “blind” to reading our signals. Seeking the same learning outcome you can teach the dog to choose between food in the hand or touch a target in the other hand.

In conclusion a sound protocol but some limitations for the future use of hand gestures.

2. Treat in hand, back off treat when hand held open, click, treat given to mouth.

You can begin to see the same principle repeating in this protocol, location of the treats should not be the focal point. Direct treat begging is to be avoided. (Luring is not a sin, but that is a Webinar for a later day, Intelligent Luring – Feb 5th 2012). This protocol is often used as the default, in that all treats whether in an open hand, placed on the ground or offered are the cue to back away and hold position until released. If you need all reinforcers to cue this response then this is an excellent nursery exercise. I have seen it taught to a high degree where a dog averted their head to a box of treat dropped to the floor.

This protocol can restrict training where deliberate placement of the reinforcer is part of the behaviour cycle, where the dog is free to collect the treat after the click. For example: cueing a sit, click in the sit, the dog steps forward to a standing position to collect the treat from the hand. The dog is then at the opening point to begin another cycle of sit-from-stand practice. If your dog will not take food from the open hand and food is always fed direct to the dog’s mouth, then the dog will remain in the sit after the click waiting for the food, a cue would be needed to release the dog to step forward. Additionally if the dog is conditioned to wait for food delivery, the sit becomes a well anchored, relaxed posture. Perfect in some conditions, but not desired when the sit is preceding an a activity, for instance setting off in heelwork.

One of the advantages and blessings of using a clicker is the option to separate the behaviour from the reinforcer delivery.

If this protocol is taught so that the scent of food, placement of food or food in the hand becomes the cue for stillness (self control), then the dog may become confused when you wish to free-shape new behaviours. You will need to plan to have a cue for free shaping to release the stillness, especially if the dog sits or lies down when free shaping. These can become “terminal” behaviours that the dog will not self-release from.

You can teach a particular signal cue when holding the treat as “follow” (Intelligent Luring) and the open hand as come and get the treat. This open hand will trigger the dog to walk towards it, even when there is not treat on offer, a useful every day, instinctive behaviour for people to ask for a dog to come close (and catch the collar).

In conclusion a useful protocol where the reinforcers cues non-action and self control, but can limit other forms of learning with blanket associated environmental cues.

3. Click is a cue for …..

This may be one of your first questions. Yes, the click marks the behaviour, and reinforcement is to follow, but the click is also a cue. Your choices are:

  • a) Remain in position/behaviour, the reinforcer will be delivered to you. This is appropriate if you want a static understanding of training, click will cue stillness.
  • b) Release from position/behaviour and come collect your reinforcer. This is appropriate if you want animated training, but when you are toy training the danger with the click as a release can result in the dog lunging for the toy on the click.
  • c) Orientate to the reinforcer and respond to the delivery cue. This is a combination of both a) and b). The dog can be in a settled, lying down position, the click signifies, in this context, you will walk towards the dog and deliver the treat in situ. The dog can be free shaping going round an object and on click will turn to look at you on the click to see where the reinforcer is to be delivered, placed or thrown.

You can make the click as a cue contextual to the behaviour, but this takes serious planning and good discipline to use effectively.

4. What is your default behaviour?

Your default behaviour needs much thought and consideration. This is the behaviour the dog will adopt in preparation for training, in anticipation of a cue, and when in doubt – they do not understand what is required. Your default can be a position, or a movement, or a lack of movement.

  • Choice A: Stillness default.  This default will require a release cue from the behaviour to collect the reinforcer. Suggested cues are “free”, “re-lease”, “OK”. For example: The dog will lie down on cue, toy thrown forward, dog clicked, released to “get it”. The dog can touch the target, be clicked, and then cued “OK” to move away from the target to collect the treat, or wait at the target for the treat to be delivered, then cued “OK” and be free to move for another set up. This accompanies 3a), Click, remain in position until cued to release. This may be an ideal protocol for a contact point in agility, or an open door etc.
  • Choice B: Move to location on default. This default means that the dog will place themselves in a particular place, making the decision to move to that place, the opposite of stillness. This default interpretation can be used for: the heel position, the dog moves and remains at your side when not cued, or waiting for a cue, the facing in front in the stand, the dog may be cued to spin, and will return to this position until cued, or waiting for the next cue. This can be used with 3b) where the dog will self release from the behaviour and move to collect the reinforcer.

You will need to decide which default is in the majority for your training expectations. If you wish to teach a dog movement to position as the default, then you may find you cue “re-lease” 70 times a session in training. On the other hand if your dog moves as a default, then you may need to cue “wait” 70 times a session in agility training.

Choose the least number of requirements to counter as your default, in other words the least amount of times you have to open your mouth. You can teach both defaults in different environmental situations. When around agility equipment, agility training, other dogs doing agility your default would be stillness, when at home doing free shaping, sitting in a chair in the kitchen your default will be movement. And of course the opposite.

If you are teaching different defaults to environmental cues be rigorous and concentrate when you are training. If you know you may be sloppy, or forgetful when you are nervous then do not begin a protocol that requires skills you do not have. No dog needs the additional confusion that comes from you not paying attention.

5. Noise. With meaning.

The first sound a pup will hear as their ears begin to open, even before they are physically “open” is the sound of their sibling sucking the teat. I have no personal memory or experience of breast feeding, but I suspect the human inclination to make the same sound to babies comes from a similar root. This noise is extremely effective with a litter of pups and works up to a period just past final weaning. The response will begin to naturally fade at around 12 weeks if not continually paired with a reinforcer. In simple words, you make a noise like you are nipple sucking, the pup runs towards a hopeful sucking session and you feed. After 12 weeks their innate response to run towards something shifts to the sound of regurgitation, or squeal of dying rabbit. Up-chucking has yet to become a popular recall cue but we steadfastly adhere to nipple sucking as a cue for attention for the dog.

Mature your noise maker. Nipple sucking after 12 weeks is Just A Sound. Having seen a client struggle to attempt to make more and more strenuous nipple sucking sounds at her dog, deaf to everything but the possibility of birds, this is not a recommended protocol with a future unless you are exercising your pouting muscles. If you want to keep the sound-response link then you must regularly condition it. Kissy-kissy-treat, practice.


You can replace this with a short whistle, or even as a more practical, useful sound, the dog’s name. Pups can be whistled, or “bugle-called” from 4 weeks in pre-feeding conditioned practice sessions. Forget the teat recall, move onto the food bowl recall.


Clicker training is a plethora of “assumed rules”. As you go deeper into the woods you will begin to see many different types of trees all flourishing with very productive results. Now you have to choose which tree to hang your hat on, a bit of htis tree and a bit of that can get you into major trouble unless you are skilled to fully understand how the protocols work and where it may lead you in the future.

There is rarely a right or wrong method, choice is more reliant on “it depends ……” on what you want the dog to learn, how good your skills are, how much time you have, where you are going etc.

Essential questions for adopting a protocol:

  • What does this protocol teach the dog?
  • Do I need the dog to learn this?
  • Have I the skills to teach this?
  • What are the contigencies “it depends …. “?
  • Do I have the self discipline and skills to use this with diligence for the rest of the dog’s life?
  • Will the other people involved with the dog be able to apply this protocol?
  • Are there associated cues that could hit me on the head further down the road?
  • Are there other options to achieve the same results?
  • Is this protocol compatible with my future ambitions for this dog?
  • And probably most importantly: Do I fully understand this “recipe”?

In my fortunate travels I see more failure that occurs not from the method chosen but the sloppy application or lack of understanding. Then of course it is the protocol or method that must be at fault. When we are standing at this point there are important questions to ask:

  • 1. Did I follow the process carefully and diligently?  This is the most common reason for poor skills, a key part of the process has   been missed out, mis-read or the terminology not understood.  
  • 2. The process, or you, have made assumptions.  Often the process is based on an assumption of previous learning, background   or reinforcement history. If these are not assessed, or not appropriate then the  process may be accurate but the required components are not present.  
  • 3. Is the process at fault? Often the process has originated in laboratory conditions, with non-dog species, rats or pigeons, and not exhaustively tested across the board (the process has not be sufficiently generalised). Additionally the process is often devised by other than animal trainers. These factors can make the application to dogs seemed sporadic, it will work with some dogs but not others.

If we are going to build a Training Methods Comparison Website send me your reviews of the published protocols. Clear explanations, advantages and disadvantages, risks and benefits, cost analysis etc. Innocent trainers need that information without prejudiced and a hefty dose of luck!

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Susan Rapp permalink
    December 19, 2011 7:57 pm

    Great – full of .interesting ideas: are there any good case studies published already that illustrate how one.protocol has been abandoned and a new one selected or the old one reworked for specific dog training needs?

    • December 20, 2011 3:45 pm

      Hi Susan – I think that is happening all the time. We improve our understanding, timing and effectiveness.

  2. December 24, 2011 3:32 pm

    Thank you- lots of things to think about.

  3. December 25, 2011 3:48 pm

    I am a newbie to clicker training. After reading your post, I am more confused than ever. There are no clicker trainers where I live, not even any good trainers, period. So I was teaching myself from watching videos on Youtube. I have lots of questions and no one to ask. I am never sure when I should click or how I should deliver the treat. Do I move to the dog and feed in position or toss the treat on the floor and get the dog out of position? If I toss the treat on the floor, I feel like I am rewarding the dog for getting out of position. Can you recommend a good video for a novice trainer? I am a visual learner so books don’t help me, I need to watch how it is done to understand the steps. Any advice? Thank You!

    • December 28, 2011 11:24 am

      Hi Karen – welcome to the world of clicker training. We began when there was very little information out there and had to work through the principles very slowly step by step. I sometimes wonder if that was easier. I would not recommend floating around YouTube as you have discovered there are many different, and sometimes quite oppositie interpretations, as a beginner you need consitstent philosophy. The interesting thing about feeding out of position is that the dog chooses to go to the position that got the click, they don’t keep trying for hte feeding position. This was one of the initial discoveries, in that the animal repeated what was clicked, despite the fact that food delivery was in a different part of their cage. The clicker allows separation of the behaviour from the reward. I have a Perfect Foundation book and video, I think you need to see it AND need to read about it to get the best understanding. I would recommend you find one system or teacher/author that you can connect with and follow their structure.

      • December 29, 2011 4:46 pm

        Thank you for your response. You are so right about finding one mentor. I have alot of books and videos by top trainers but the more I read and watch, the more confused I get. Wish I could attend your seminar in March at Gentle Touch Pet Training but I don’t live in California. I will definitely check into your book and video. My goal is to get good at clicker training so I can work with shelter dogs to make the dogs more adoptable.

  4. December 26, 2011 7:52 pm

    I like this post, enjoyed this one thankyou for posting .

  5. caroline howitt permalink
    November 29, 2012 8:39 pm

    Kay could I ask if you know of Emilty larlham of “kikopup” youtube fame. I’m wondering if the way she teaches is what you describe in 3 a) defining what the click means. (“Remain in position/behaviour, the reinforcer will be delivered to you. This is appropriate if you want a static understanding of training, click will cue stillness”.) She teaches release cues from the very beginning) The more i learn about the clicker the more complex it seems. I would love to do the CAP courses here in Spain. I have found this article fascinating and thought provoking. Thank you for bringing such depth and kindness to the subject,

    • December 4, 2012 11:00 am

      I’m not quite sure what you question is Caroline. The plan is to understand what you mean the click to be and stay with that principle, not change horses mindstream – the dog will fall through the gap! If I am teaching duration – static or in movement, I am very clear what the click is a cue for. Clicker training, or training with a clicker, appears to be simple, but it is overlaid on a very complex system of communicating to another species.

  6. caroline howitt permalink
    December 4, 2012 11:19 am

    So in your terms does the meaning of the click change depending on what behaviour you are teaching? How would you teach a long duration behaviour like a down stay?

    • December 13, 2012 9:47 am

      The click marks the behaviour that is reinforcer, but it also acts as a cue. You can make this cue contextual. My dogs have learned when they hear the click to orientate to me to see what the reinforcer will be and how it will be delivered. This may vary from playing with a toy from tug to catch to chase, to collecting a treat from the reinforcer station, chasing after a treat or waiting for one to be delivered.

  7. March 2, 2013 6:37 pm

    I remember reading this a while ago. I revisited it today because I was trying to teach a dog to target my hand. He wouldn’t. He’d offer a paw (a well reinforced behaviour of shake) or not even look at the hand. We problem solved and figured it may also be because the hand in front of the face has been used a the cue to “wait”. So he waits! We really need to be aware of what we are teaching and NOT forget this when we go on to teach the next thing. Thanks for your approach and the challenge you give to always think critically and appraise how we teach our best friends.

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