Clickerly Attitude and the Cross-Over Trainer

I'm fortunate enough to have met a wonderful young lady named Diana on Facebook. Diana is a 17-year old raising a lovely young ACD (Australian...
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I’m fortunate enough to have met a wonderful young lady named Diana on Facebook. Diana is a 17-year old raising a lovely young ACD (Australian Cattle Dog) puppy named Kallie, blogging about the experience at CattleDogzRule on Blogspot. Kallie is Diana’s first clicker puppy. Diana is an enthusiastic and vibrant young lady, and if her commitment to clicker training continues, she is likely representative of the future of my profession.

Diana is, like many clicker trainers, what is defined a crossover trainer. That means with her previous dogs, Diana incorporated the use of positive punishment. Diana, like many recent crossover trainers, feels frustrated. She wants to clicker train, understands the benefits of clicker training, and yet finds that old habits can be very hard to break. I didn’t want Diana to feel so frustrated or discouraged and wanted to put into perspective for her how wonderful her new skills are already after only a few weeks of practice.

I’ve experienced this myself during the crossover process and see it in my clients as well. Learning a new task is frustrating, and mistakes are often inevitable. Thankfully, dogs are generally exceptionally patient when it comes to waiting for their humans to figure it out. Usually, in a new class, the rate of acquisition for dog behaviors correlates directly with the rate of acquisition for human mechanical, observational, and problem solving skills. Once the handlers know what they’re doing, the dogs breathe a sigh of relief and start learning rather rapidly. While the handlers are attaining their new skills, it generally takes the dog longer to learn desirable new behaviors.

When you’re new to clicker training, there are lots of new things to concentrate on. Sometimes you click behaviors you don’t want, and must follow up with a treat to maintain the value of the clicker as a reinforcer. Sometimes your reinforcement is delivered too late or you forget to deliver it at all. You may fall back on the old habits of verbal and physical corrections which feel natural and unconscious to you because you’ve done them many, many times before.

This is to be expected, and is part of the learning process. As with gaining any new skill, you will proceed through the “Four Stages of Competence.” The following description of the stages is taken from Wikipedia.

  1. Unconscious Incompetence
    The individual neither understands nor knows how to do something, nor recognizes the deficit, nor has a desire to address it.
  2. Conscious Incompetence
    Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, without yet addressing it.
  3. Conscious Competence
    The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires a great deal of consciousness or concentration.
  4. Unconscious Competence
    The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it becomes “second nature” and can be performed easily (often without concentrating too deeply). He or she may or may not be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

Attaining unconscious competence is a process, regardless of the skill you are developing. You learn through trial and error. You learn from your mistakes.

Clickerly living is all about looking for reinforceable behavior. Focus on the great behaviors that you have, reinforce them, and eventually, the unwanted behaviors dissipate and float off into the extinct behavior abyss. This isn’t always easy, especially since by nature I am not nearly so zen – I am feisty, temperamental, with a quick temper and a low threshold for frustration. I had to retrain myself to be basically the exact opposite of what I am naturally when I am working (and often, 0utside of the working environment) – this is no small task! I made lots of mistakes. I still make mistakes, but every day I practice, I improve; and you will as well.

I’m encouraging all new crossover trainers to treat themselves with as much respect as they treat their dogs and sharing what I told Diana. Yeah, you’re going to make some mistakes. So what? You’re also going to do a lot of very wonderful things. Human nature and our punishment-laden culture dictate that the natural response is to pay more attention to your failures than your successes. You can transcend those cultural mores by paying particular attention to the things you are doing right. At the end of each training session, I encourage you to write down three wonderful things you did that day, three indicators that you are making progress in the right direction.

  • you popped the leash twice today, whereas yesterday you popped it six times within a session
  • your clicker mechanics were cleaner than yesterday
  • you achieved a higher rate of reinforcement than in the previous session
  • you didn’t react with frustration or anger when your dog failed to respond to a cue
  • instead of punishing your dog for not responding, you adjusted your criteria to set your dog up for success
  • you recognized signs of stress in your dog and modified your training plan and environment to establish success
  • you used the Premack Principle effectively to reinforce a desirable behavior
  • you had one or two stunningly timed clicks!

Such an exercise reinforces the principles of force-free training – look for and reward good behavior. Forgive mistakes, taking them as information about where more focus and work is needed to get back on track. Pay attention to what the learner does right. Training is a relationship-building process, not a race.

Beating yourself up over mistakes is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. It will only make the training environment a “poisoned cue” for you. Remember that you and your dog are both learning new skills and that you will grow in this process together. As you get better at clicker training, your dog will get better at learning with this new method. If you feel overwhelmed or like you need support, ask for it – from a friend or trainer that has experience. Videotape yourself if you need to – when you see something you do well, reward yourself! If you see a mistake, think to yourself – what would I do differently next time? One fellow trainer smartly advised that Diana manage a situation to prevent her from rehearsing the unwanted behavior – if you are prone to leash popping, work in an environment where your dog can be off leash while you develop new skills.

With a little persistence and commitment, you’ll find your new skills develop rapidly. Someday, you won’t even have to concentrate on keeping your treat hand still while you click. You will find yourself in a moment where you previously would have popped the leash, take a deep breath, and realize, “Hey, I kept that leash loose unconsciously!” Your reinforcement delivery will be well-placed and well-timed.

In all likelihood, you’re probably having many more successes than you are mistakes. If you focus on the mistakes, that’s all you see. If you focus on your successes, your mistakes will fade in time.

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