ClickerSolutions Training Articles

You Get What You Reinforce, Not What You (Necessarily) Want

Please allow me to say that you have made a profound observation, one that many trainers don't see well, or admit to, even when it is pointed out - it is what the animal is perceiving that counts, not what we perceive or think that the animal should be perceiving. We may say that we are clicking some isolated part of a complex behavior and that the animal should somehow sort out of the environmental milieu and out of its own complex emitted behaviors, that one tiny aspect we are clicking for.

If the dog is doing lots of things in a complex environment, then why should a loose leash be so salient, as compared to, maybe, stepping over a crack in the pavement, or another dog appearing ahead, or the fact that the dog happened to turn its head to the right just at the time of the click. If the clicker happened repeatedly when the dog was in the process of speeding up the pace, yet the leash was still loose, why should the dog not think that it was speeding up that gained the click rather than the loose leash? Because the leash has a certain length, it could be that the dog could really build up some speed before the leash was drawn tight, thus non-reinforced. I know, I know, the dog should figure this out, and, eventually, the dog will. However, the more intense the distractions, the more complex the behaviors, and the less perceptive the trainer, the longer it will take for the dog to associate the clicker with what you want rather than something else that was at least as probable.

Now, clicking a loose leash is not that complex, but, under the wrong circumstances, that is, in an environment full of distractions, the job could be made MUCH more complicated than it should. I must admit that I have never had to train a dog that has had a prolonged (years) and severe leash (lunging) problem, but I have trained a fair number of dogs to maintain a loose leash. I maximized my success by restricting the training environment and the options of the dog. I would not leave the restricted environment (say a barn first, then the company grounds, and then a meadow, etc.) until the behavior was very good. I would expand the environment and increase the behavioral criteria only when the dog's behavior said it was time.

Might I suggest you consider having someone videotape your training periods, at least some of them. You might find some ways of improving your timing. Frankly, over the years, I found myself using the clicker less and less for generalized behaviors, such as heeling, unless I am trying to capture or shape a very precise response. The clicker is should be used as a scalpel rather than a machete. If you want the dog to maintain a distance of 2 inches outside of, and the nose 6 inches ahead of the pantseam, I would use a clicker, but seldom otherwise; I would just chuck food. However, chucking food creates its own problems, especially when not done well. Like so many other issues in training, there is a trade off - how much precision to you want or need? How skilled can you be at delivering the food?

The philosophy: you get what you reinforce, not what you want.

Bob Bailey
copyright 2002 Bob Bailey


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