On 19th February I started a new series of clicker training sessions with Rachael.
This is my report on our journey.
It is not an example of how clicker training normally progresses.
Rachael have proven quite challenging in this respect!
The article is quite long.
I did think about splitting it into two, but I think it benefits from being kept in one piece.
The story so far
Rachael has always picked up any dummy willingly and with huge enthusiasm.
She would then proceed to throw it around and play with it and have no interest in handing it over.
So, I had two major obstacles to overcome
- Playing keep away
- Mistreating the dummy
[wp_ad_camp_1]I had done some clicker training before Christmas, basically just getting Rachael to let go of the dummy in return for a high value treat.
Offering treats once she has possession of the dummy had mixed results, even with high value treats and I have at times had to resort to the following in order to get underway.
- Very high value treats (roast chicken for example)
- A very hungry dog (no food for 12 hours before training)
- Initiating multiple clicks and treats before introducing the dummy
With these tools I had taught Rachael to spit out the dummy on hearing the click, and then added some movement towards me. However, if I waited more than a second or two before clicking, Rachael would lose interest in me and begin throwing the dummy around in the air, and/or chomping on it.
We then had a break of a couple of months due to my shoot commitments. And in early February I decided to start again. Yet I was still coming up against the problem of playing with the dummy every time I tried to increase the length of the hold.
A different method
So I decided to change my method slightly. I decided to teach Rachael to take the dummy from my hand rather than from the floor. This is a technique I used to use some years ago but have not used for a while. My logic was that it would give me more control, put an end to ‘playing’ with the dummy and help me to lower Rachael’s excitement levels.
The system works like this: I sit in a chair and Rachael sits facing me. I have a clicker and one end of the dummy in my right hand, and some treats and the other end of the dummy in my left. I start off with the dummy held against my chest, elbows bent. And wait for Rachael to sit very still. I then present the dummy to her at nose level and a couple of inches away from her mouth.
I am using a different dummy for this, a US style dokken plastic dummy, because it is light and easy to hold. To begin with things went very well.
Rachael immediately reaches for the dummy nicely in the centre between my hands, and I click straight away. After a few clicks she starts to try and grab the ends of the dummy. I don’t click and hold on to them. She then sulks for a few minutes and refuses to touch the dummy at all. I wait.
And off we go again, reaching for the dummy in the centre. She made a couple more attempts to get the ends of the dummy out of my hands which I ignored, but all in all a good start. Because I am concerned with the ‘let go’ as much as with the hold at the moment, I am clicking as soon as she touches the dummy and this soon reduces her actions to the briefest grasp. But that’s ok, we can build up the length of the hold later.
A good session, plenty of open mouthed touches in the centre of the dummy. Three or four attempts to touch the ends which I ignored, but no sulking. Rachael was completely engaged in the game.
Also she is really catching on that the only way I am going to present the dummy is if she sits very still. The whole process is much calmer and more controlled. Grasp/click/treat, grasp/click/treat.
I just focused on getting a grasp right in the centre of the dummy and eliminating any touching of the ends.
All nice clean central grasps. 100% good. Did twenty reps. Ready to start building a little duration into that hold now.
Twenty reps again, but every four or five reps I withheld a click and observed Rachael’s behaviour. Each time I withhold a click she touches the dummy more tentatively the next time. I am hoping for a double grasp, or a longer grasp, or even a slight lift. But no sign of any of those yet.
Started with lots of confident but brief grasps. Then I withheld the click. Rachael’s response was to try touching the ends of the dummy. When no click is forthcoming in response to a change in behaviour she typically backs off and just watches me, searching my face, trying to work out why I have stopped clicking.
I then have to get her ‘back in the game’ by clicking any approach to the dummy.
All in all, not much progress today, day five.
I clicked any full grasp with the dummy well into the mouth and behind the canines. I did not try to shape anything more
In this session I decided to C&T the first three grasps and then wait it out. I was hoping for a double grasp or even better, for a longer grasp. And I got both
Rachael immediately offered two grasps several times. Then a couple of two second holds. Then it got a bit messy, biting at the ends of the dummy. I quickly went back to clicking for any central grasp several times, then withheld the click again. Three good double grasps and I stopped on a high.
However, I can see another problem emerging and that is that she is moving her mouth a great deal as she grasps.
My plan at this point is to get a slightly longer hold and then start shaping for a ‘still’ grasp.
All in all quite pleased with today’s second session.
Went straight for a three second hold this morning and got several. But the biting and mouthing is increasing and beginning to worry me. I really need Rachael to have a ‘still’ mouth whilst she is playing this game. Otherwise I am simply reinforcing a potentially disastrous habit of biting down on what she is carrying.
So half way through this session I abandoned the soft rubber dummy and switched to a plastic drinks bottle. The bottle is a similar size and shape to the dummy but it is firm. It will also make a noise if she bites hard on it which I hope will help me click accurately for a still mouth.
To begin with she regarded the bottle with some suspicion. I clicked for a couple of nose bumps and then we were away. Grasp after grasp. And no mouthing. The bottle is slightly wider than the dummy I have been using and I think this helps to reduce her inclination to mouth at it.
So far so good.
Now she is chomping on the bottle too. AArrggghhh
Back to the white dummy and clicking only for brief grasps to re-establish the still mouth. Short grasps so no mouthing
Tried to increase hold but chomping restarted. No progress.
Oh, and I have the flu and feel like crap.
Rachael is still chomping at a rate of about 1 chomp per second whenever I try and increase the hold. So I am clicking before the first chomp. Lots of short grasps. Will do this for two more sessions before attempting to add duration again.
It is day ‘ten’ now. And as usual every time I try and increase the hold Rachael chomps. So still persisting with the brief grasp. Getting bored!
In the afternoon of day ten, possibly as a result of fever induced insanity, for some reason I spontaneously placed the dummy on the floor.
This surprised Rachael nearly as much as it surprised me. After several days of grasp click, grasp click, from my hand, it was not what she expected, and she regarded me with interest for a brief moment. She then lunged for the dummy, lifted it cleanly (no throwing it around or chomping) and dropped it in my lap.
We ended on that happy note and I began to reflect on what I was doing.
The act of taking the dummy from my hand, and being made to sit before being given the opportunity to do, so had certainly reduced Rachael’s overall activity level. However, I suspected that all that pent up excitement was now being directed into chomping.
And if I had not felt so ill I would hopefully have come to that conclusion a little quicker.
Back to the floor
I decided therefore that I would return to my original method of getting Rachael to pick up from the floor.
This would at least enable me to keep Rachael ‘on the move’ whilst she held on to the dummy, and hopefully this will help to relax her mouth. Initially I began clicking the instant she lifted the dummy to minimise the chance of the playing recurring.
Rachael immediately fell into a smooth rhythm of lifts, dropping after the click, and lifting again. And from now on I was able to keep Rachael ‘in the game’ without starving her first, or resorting to roast chicken. She was working happily for cubes of cheese or bread.
We did plenty of repetitions and finished the session with her favourite meal (tripe) and I crawled back to my sofa where I remained there for the next few days. And did not resume sessions until 4th March
This was a short session but it went very well. Although she is no longer playing with the dummy, I don’t like the emphasis Rachael gives to the ends of the dummy so I focused on clicking mostly for a central grip. I did not worry about duration. If she picked it up and dangled it by one end, I just ignored her. She would then drop it, look at me expectantly, and pick it up again. I finished on three consecutive good central lifts
Now we’re rocking. Almost all pick-ups are central and I got several two second holds with the central grip too.
Rachael still has a tendency to ‘chomp’ on the dummy if she holds it for any length of time, and this seems less pronounced if I keep her on the move. So I am holding a treat in right in front of her nose and getting her to follow my hand around the kitchen. This is reducing the chomping but not eliminating it entirely. Sometimes she spits out the dummy before I click and if she does she gets no click and treat. I then wait for her to pick it up again.
Around 20 reps in this session, each time keeping Rachael moving with the dummy in her mouth for around five seconds before I click. Once I have clicked she can spit out and get her treat. Sometimes I turn my back on Rachael as she picks up and she rushes round to my front with the dummy.
There were a couple of pick-ups that I ignored because she picked up the dummy by one end, but the others were good. All in all a good session.
So what have we achieved?
- Reduced the value of the reward required to engage Rachael in the game
- Drastically decreased playing with the dummy, chucking it around etc.
- The dog is actively seeking me with the dummy
Rachael is now willing to work with me for lower value rewards, which is helpful. She is also losing her urge to possess the dummy for herself. She is actively and willingly moving towards me each time she picks up the dummy. And she has stopped trying to ‘engage’ the dummy in her own private games!
Perhaps the nicest thing is that these new behaviours are now being applied to other objects. If himself leaves his slippers on the floor for example, instead of taking them under the table to disassemble them, Rachael comes to find me and offers me a swap for some bread or cheese. I am making sure that I have plenty of cubes of cheese ready to hand in the kitchen.
This is something that most of my retrievers (and many spaniels) have done from a young age, often happy to hand over items in exchange for a stroke and a bit of fuss. It has taken me quite a while to reach this point with Rachael and it is very satisfying to have got there at last.
What I have not yet achieved is to completely eliminate the chomping, nor have I taught a delivery to hand. There is still plenty of work to do.
What comes next?
My next task is to get Rachael to hold on to the dummy whilst I touch it. This is in preparation for a delivery to hand. I am hoping also, to add a ‘sit’ to Rachael’s delivery, but much will depend on how we get on with training out the chomping.
Well done for making it to the end! I am keeping a record of our progress and will let you know how the next twenty sessions progress!
If you enjoy my articles, you might like my new book: The Happy Puppy Handbook – a definitive guide to early puppy care and training.
Kath M says
Many, many thanks for your excellent detailed articles, both here and on The Labrador Site. I’ve returned to dog ownership after a break of about 20 years and have a lovely black lab girl who is now 5 months old. She’s my first lab and I’m totally in love with the breed and with her! She’s from working lines and has a strong retrieving drive, but I realised that playing ‘fetch’ with my children was having a pretty detrimental effect on her retrieve, with lots of mouthing and occasional running away appearing. I decided to work on a ‘trained’ retrieve as you did with Rachel, and we’ve been doing great. I was thrilled today to have her shooting round the side of the cold frame to where I’d hidden a dummy, and racing back and sitting in front of me, waiting for me to take it – magic!! It’s really nice to have your reassurance that it’s OK, in fact GOOD to use food in training, as so many gundog people have said dire things to me to the effect that ‘you’ll lose your dog on a shoot if someone’s eating a sandwich if you use food in training’. Presumably you’ve never found this? Certainly so far I’ve just found it reinforces the idea that all good things come from me, and in fact has taught her she has to go away from the food to work before she gets it!
Hi Kath, I am glad you are enjoying the articles. Using food will not teach your dog to beg from other people, only they can do that 🙂 And I know plenty of working dogs that have never been fed in training, who are the first to line up and beg off the guns and beaters when everyone stops for a break. You might enjoy the forum where we chat quite a lot about the techniques described on here.
Good luck with your pup 🙂
Pippa, thank you so much for this detailed description. My Springer and me have similar problems and have made similar experiences. You gave me new input and encouraged me not to give up!
Glad you found it helpful Heidrun 🙂