From dolphins to dogs: Click & treat

A review of the Click! & Treat Training Kit, a videotape and booklet set by Gary Wilkes, author of The Behavior Sampler and presenter of seminars that teach this non-coercive training method.

"You cannot use a leash or bridle, or even your fist on an animal that just swims away," said dolphin trainer Karen Pryor in her book Don't Shoot the Dog."Positive reinforcement -- primarily a busket of fish -- was the only tool we had."

The bucket of fish became the rewards for the behavior of the dolphins, but the trick was to find something that would indicate to the animal that it had done something worth getting the reward. Add the clicker, a modern version of a child's party favor, as the signal, and the behavior kit is complete.

For dolphins, the sound of the clicker meant "I get a fish." Adapted to dogs, it means "I get a treat, a ball, a hug, a romp" -- anything the dog perceives as a reward. With most gentle training methods, the reward is accompanied by verbal praise. However, in the time an owner can say "Good dog," the desired behavior may be replaced by unwanted behavior -- the dog may get up, walk away, get distracted, etc. -- so the clicker simply supplants that verbal praise with a more precise signal that the dog can associate with success.

How it works

Gary Wilkes' Click! & Treat training kit with videotape and booklet explains the method and comes with two clickers to try it out. Dog owners just add treats, and the kit is complete.

Basically, clicker training involves shaping behavior and giving only positive reinforcement for success. It is done without a leash or training collar, without jerks or tugs, without placing the dog in the desired position, and without scolding for failure.

The principle behind the success of this training comes from the work of psychologist B. F. Skinner, but that bit of information is not important to the success of the method with Ranger or Rambo. For the dog owner's purpose, it suffices to know that behavior can be shaped without force and that dogs will happily and consistently perform the behavior as long as they get even sporadic reinforcement for doing so.

Clicker training works with puppies and adult dogs to shape new behaviors and discourage misbehaviors. Wilkes demonstrates the progression in his tape with a series of vignettes about teaching particular behaviors to different puppies and adult dogs.

He begins by helping the dog make the connection between the behavior, the sound of the clicker, and the appearance of a treat. His first student is a very active toy Poodle pup. Wilkes teaches the pup to sit --- without using a command or touching her -- by sounding the clicker and giving a treat every time her butt hits the floor. At first, he reinforces with click and treat when she starts to sit, then, when she understands that "starting to sit" brings a reward, he waits to click and treat until she sits and then expands the behavior into a sit of several seconds by delaying the click and treat a bit.

Once the pup understands that sitting is rewarded, he adds the cue --- the command "sit" -- immediately before he expects the behavior to occur. When the response to the command is consistent, he continues to use the clicker for success but begins to vary the food rewards.

Using different puppies and dogs, the tape goes on to show how "down," "come," "roll over," "moon walk," "high five," "jump," "heel," and other behaviors can be taught.

Once the dog begins to understand the routine, Wilkes adds the word "wrong" to the progression to teach the dog to think it over and try again. He uses the word in a normal tone of voice, not as discipline, but as a check to remember the correct response.

Keys to success of clicker training include patience; a willingness to unlearn the old ways of teaching by placing the dog in position, yanking its collar, and scolding for failures; and suspension of disbelief until the first few successes have been achieved.

The tape is instructive and attractive. It stars Meg, Wilkes' charismatic 12-year-old Australian Cattle Dog, and includes in a supporting cast a couple of pups of that breed as well as a Golden Retriever pup, the Toy Poodle pup, and several adult mixed breed dogs. The sequence in which he teaches a moonwalking Labrador mix to increase the distance she travels backwards is a hoot, as is the progression for teaching a Doberman mix to roll over.

The setting is a residential home and yard in the southwest US (Wilkes' Arizona home perhaps?), with some exercises done on a tennis court. After each new dog or new exercise, Wilkes recaps the steps in the new progression to reinforce the stages for the viewer.

The first part of the tape is most useful for pet owners looking to teach good manners in a non-coercive fashion. The second part of the tape focuses on a bit more complicated uses of the method that can be adapted for advanced obedience training or just to have some fun with the dog. The sequence in which Meg happily learns a new, rather complex, trick is delightful.

The 30-plus page booklet reinforces the tape and adds some new information about the method. It explains in detail why the use of food is appropriate as a training tool, how variable reinforcement works to control behavior, and how shaped behaviors can be chained together to produce a new sequence.

We know that dogs with a job or a hobby are happier than dogs with no purpose. We also know that dogs trained with physical and verbal punishment can be fearful and reluctant performers. The click and treat method is a well-developed technique for avoiding the traps of compulsion training for those dog owners who have the patience to learn a new behavior themselves. Wilkes' Click! & Treat Training Kit is a good start. For ordering information and a catalog of training books and tapes, call (602) 649-9804. To order the tape, call (800) 456-9526.

[More on Obedience training]
Norma Bennett Woolf

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