ClickerSolutions Training Articles

Four Stages of Learning

So I am still in a place where I can not get to the point that my dog will exhibit/offer the requested behavior UNLESS THE FOOD AND CLICKER AND VISIBLE. I feel like I have hit a wall....and there is no structure defined to get past it. In fact the instructors current feedback is "you must have food on you at all times, so that they don't know when they will or will not get reinforced". Makes sense, but impractical for my current lifestyle.

I would be frustrated too! I don't personally agree with their approach. There are four stages of learning, and I have a specific training plan for each.

Stage 1: Learning the Behavior.

Behavior is brand new. Dog is trying to figure out what you want. You're shaping the behavior and putting it on cue. This is taught in formal sessions. I'm fairly consistent in my presentation at this stage -- clicker, bait bag. I vary location and my position frequently. If the dog makes a "mistake" here, I ignore it and may make what I want more obvious or easier. I aim for a very high rate of reinforcement for doing what I want.

Stage 2: Perfecting and Generalizing the Behavior.

Behavior is on cue. You add elements like distance, duration, distractions. Building to fluency. Dog "knows" what you want, but he's figuring out all the contingencies. Still working in formal sessions. I really emphasize variability here. Clicker is replaced with a release word. Reinforcers vary from food to toys to opportunity to do something fun in the environment. (Still mostly food, though, because the others slow down formal sessions.) Anything that isn't supposed to be a discriminative stimulus (cue) changes.

I might begin taking the behavior on the road. I am still ignoring mistakes and striving for a very high rate of reinforcement. I *want* the dog to experiment and make some mistakes, because that's how he figures out what I want. "Is it right if I do this? What about this? How about this?" Corrections are absolutely counter to what I want to do during either of these first two stages, because they *suppress* behavior. I *want* my dog to experiment, and he won't if there's an unpleasant consequence for doing so.

Stage 3: Applying the Behavior.

Behavior is darn near perfect -- and highly reliable -- in formal sessions, so now I begin using it in real-world situations, situations that are NOT cued by the trappings of a "formal session." During this stage, I *only* cue the behavior when the dog wants something in the environment I can control. Dinner. Access to outside. A toy. Opportunity to go for a walk. Opportunity to meet and greet. If he doesn't respond to the cue, he doesn't get what he wants -- no skin off my nose. It's vital that I practice ONLY when *he* has something at stake and *I* don't.

Maybe he wants me to open the door to go outside. Maybe he wants his dinner bowl to be put down. Maybe he wants me to throw his bumper. If he does what I ask, I do what he wants. If not, I don't. This is how to use environmental rewards. I create a clear contingency between doing what I ask and getting what HE wants. This is the stage where my animals learn that not responding to what I ask has consequences -- namely that they don't get what they want. I don't "do" anything to them though.

Stage 4: Living the Behavior.

Once the dog is reliably offering the behavior in stage three, he has begin to make the behavior part of his life. Do you justify brushing your teeth every morning? No. It's a habit. You just do it automatically. But that doesn't happen until stage 4 -- and there's a ton of reinforcement and learning that has to occur before you get here. Literally *thousands* of repetitions. Once the behavior gets to stage 4, you can begin to use it when *you* have something at stake, and the dog may or may not. Do you have to keep reinforcing, at least variably? Probably. Some behaviors will become self-reinforcing. Some behaviors will be so well-practiced (sit, for example), that they're essentially automatic. But you can't count on that. I *still* try to reinforce, but sometimes at this stage, especially as life goes on, all they get is thanks and a pet.

I occasionally use negative punishment at this stage -- removing something they want -- if I'm not getting a response. I don't do that very frequently though. By stage four I simply shouldn't have to. If I'm getting non-responses, I rushed training. (Which doesn't mean it doesn't happen. I'm just not big on making my dogs pay when I'm the one who isn't being thorough.)

Evaluate your behaviors and figure out where you are -- realistically. Even if you have the behavior fully shaped, if it's not as reliable as you want in formal sessions in all locations, you're not ready for stage 3.

Melissa Alexander
mca @
copyright 2007 Melissa Alexander


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