ClickerSolutions Training Treasures

Chucking Food

As I understand it, you can literally chuck food (throw it) - either to reinforce a behavior - or even as a lure, to begin to get a behavior started. You can use food-rewards without clicking - just feed. This works well when you're right next to the dog, so the intervening click isn't necessary.

In this casual speech, and this is my own term, chucking food means the deliberate (meaning premeditated) more or less PRECISION delivery of food to the animal. It is not simply feeding the animal, or throwing food (though I can see where throwing food to the dog or dolphin might be in order). The process of delivering the food would serve as a secondary reinforcer, of sorts, and of course, the process ends with the primary reinforcer. The primary purpose (there are others) of chucking food is to preserve the precision of the clicker, the single most precise (and powerful) tool in the clicker-trainer's arsenal.

When conducting our workshops, Marian and I are always on the lookout for that person clicking everything out there - chicken doing "something," chicken doing "nothing," chicken over there, chicken somewhere else, -- click, click, click, click! When asked why all of the clicks, there is some vague explanation of it was kind of what was wanted. Most of the time, over the course of the workshop, these students begin to see how they hurt themselves by such willy-nilly use of the clicker. The animal does not have a prayer of learning anything specific in a reasonable period of time. Yes, the people would get behavior sooner or later, but it is in spite of the clicker, and not because of it.

The most obvious example of the ill-use of the clicker is WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN THE ANIMAL GIVES YOU WHAT YOU WANT, BUT YOU MISS IT BY SECONDS? The choices are, IGNORE IT ALTOGETHER (other than go to the nearest wall and bang your head hard three times, and say before each blow I WILL PAY ATTENTION!), OR CHUCK FOOD, OR CLICK ONLY AND DO NOT TREAT, OR CLICK AND TREAT. For the compulsive clicker, the latter is almost always the choice, with click being the other choice. Look what you do to yourself when you allow LOOONGGG time and much behavior to pass before you click - non-wanted behavior is precisely marked.

OK, what about clicking and not treating. I won't get into the debate about clicking and not treating - my general position on using secondary reinforcers on extinction is well known (NO!). There are VERY few reasons to work bridges on extinction, and this certainly is not one of them. Most certainly, the first choice of doing nothing would be better, both short term and long term.

But, what about the middle ground - feeding only, without a specific behavioral marker? That would be my choice, or nothing at all. By feeding quickly, we reinforce an entire chain of behavior (and, that too could have bad consequences, so ignoring the behavior is never a BAD choice), which would include the behavior we missed. The closer the food is to the wanted behavior, the more we reinforce it. Thus, by chucking food, we MAY do ourselves some good, and we open ourselves to potential slight harm - TRAINER'S CHOICE! What we have not done is to precisely mark unwanted behavior and we have not damaged our scalpel with which we want to carve truly precise behavior.

The other mis-use of the clicker is for vague or general behavior - such as "over there" or "not doing something." Now if "over there" means that as the dog's right foot plunks down past an imaginary line and you go CLICK, then that is NOT a vague behavior. If the dog can earn the click by performing a reproducible event, then that is not vague. Can animals learn vague things? Of course they can learn many vague notions, such as HANGING OUT. However, the clicker offers few advantages over just chucking food when they accomplish such tasks. Now, I understand about training at a distance, and that MAY be an exception to what I have been presenting, and there MAY be others (yes, I have used a clicker at 50 ft, just as many of you have).

Folks, all I am suggesting is that you think carefully when you plan whether or not you will click and treat or treat only. Remember that getting any one behavior is for the short-haul, and your clicker is forever. Don't needlessly hurt the power and precision of the clicker you plan to use to get the most exquisitely fine behavior possible. Remember that you DO have a choice - clicking is not mandatory, nor is it a law. Remember that there is truly a PRIMARY reinforcer as well as a secondary reinforcer. Remember that you can shape behavior with a primary reinforcer, not just a secondary. Some have asked how our company got so much precise behavior so quickly. One reason was that we planned and we used our training tools pretty well, which means we did not squander our clicker (or whistle, or electronic signal, or whatever). I suggest that you consider doing the same.

By the way, I seldom threw food to dogs. I delivered it by hand (or mechanical feeder, when available). I think dogs scarfing up food from the floor is a needless complication.

Bob Bailey
copyright 2000 Robert Bailey


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