ClickerSolutions Training Treasures

A Case for Thinking Dogs

Abby, you are going through what every one of us when through when we began our journey into clicker training. It seems at first to take so long, when luring or coercing would do the trick so much faster.

But one thing luring and coercing and forcing can never do, and that's engage the dog's own thinking process. The dog follows the lure, he responds to the lure, but he doesn't problem solve along the way. The more luring done, the more the dog will always look to you for a cue rather than think out the problem and find a solution.

It's the same for modeling. When we place the dog where we want him to be, in a certain position, the dog does learn eventually that you want him in that position. But he has not figured out the problem, found the position on his own.

In the beginning, you are going through a transition and the dog is still expecting you to lure, coerce, help him. But if you don't, he will finally learn to solve the problem on his own. And that's what "offering" behaviors it: problem solving!

This has helped me more than I can ever say. For instance, my service dog sometimes has to perform tasks which we have never practiced, and he has to figure out how to solve the problem and get the task done. If I am in danger, or if I am stranded, I need him to continue offering behaviors until he finds the right one. If he has only followed the carrot and stick, then he's not coming from a thinking, problem solving base. He's waiting for you to give him the cue before he responds.

So what happens when my wheelchair rolls away and the dog tries to bring it back, only to get a wheel lodged firmly against a chair? If he had not been taught to problem solve, he would realize he could not perform the task as directed, give up.

BUT--the problem solving dog will try every way possible to get the job done, because he has been incrementally shaped to do this: problem solve. In my service dog's case, he tried every way to jiggle the chair out of confinement, tried pulling from different angles, and when that didn't work, he finally took a running leap and landed in the wheelchair seat, effectively dislodging the wheel, and allowing him to bring the chair the rest of the way to me.

A friend of mine, who lives with paraplegia, uses a clicker trained lab as a service dog. She fell out of the car and realized she had left her cell phone in her backpack, in the trunk of the car. Her dog was clicker trained, though had never been taught to go into a truck, open a backpack by activating the zipper and pulling out the phone. But that's exactly what the dog did. She cued "phone" and the dog went to find it, then went to work figuring out how to get it out of the bag. Yes, it took the dog a while, but he did it. He brought the phone to her, she got help, and he got a steak dinner.

When we take the time to teach the dog to THINK, to problem solve, we are setting our dog up to be a world class superdog, capable of learning amazing things the rest of his life.

When we think for our dogs, and simply stick to luring, coercing or forcing to get them to perform a behavior, that's exactly what we get: a dog who responds to only given cues or commands.

So yes, when a dog is just beginning to problem solve, progress will be sloooooow. BUT, when that lightbulb comes on, when the dog realizes HE controls the game, and the game is to try as many crazy things as possible to make you click and treat him, then you begin to see learning happen at an increasingly rapid rate.

Yep, it's faster for that "crossover" dog to be lured. Your friend is right. But the whole purpose of the box game is to engage the dog's volition, to get the dog offering more and more and more behaviors. Once this has been learned, then the dog can learn other things--very complicated things--far faster than you could ever expect with simple luring.

Melissa gave you many examples of how shaping works to get very complicated behaviors fast. This is why it is now the standard in the movie/tv industry. On a shoot, the director may change how he wants the dog to work, and the handler may only have a very short time on the set to retrain the behavior chain.

With the clicker, it's possible to do this johnny-on-the-spot, and to have a very complicated chain of new behaviors remembered well enough to do that shoot a half hour later. And to do it with ENTHUSIASM, ears up, tail wagging!

But it is very hard to see how it all connects at first. And when people begin to offer you suggestions you know will work, it's really, really hard not to cave in and just lead the dog where you want him to go instead of letting him learn to look up his own words in the dictionary!

Hang in there, don't give up--it gets easier. I promise. This is just now the time you have to spend teaching your dog how to think. The child learning to walk takes many staggaring steps, with great awkwardness before learning to walk with confidence and delight. This is where your journey is at, at this moment in time Abby. Your dog is like that child just taking those first tentative steps. He would love it if you could do it for him, but it will take a few falls, a few stumbles before he learns, step by step, to go it on his own.

Keep up the good work.

Debi Davis
Tuscon, AZ
copyright 1999 Debi Davis


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