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"Who's Pulling My Leg?": Durability of Clicker Trained Cues

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Editor's note: Debi Davis is an innovative, skilled clicker trainer, who writes well to boot. Whenever one of her keen observations comes our way, we're delighted—and hurry to share it with visitors to clickertraining.com. Recently, Debi wrote to tell us a story about her service Border collie, Finn. As with all of Debi's stories, it contains an insight: clicker training provides true learning, and behaviors taught through it are not forgotten. Therefore, we asked Emma Parsons, KPCT's training director and author of Click to Calm: Healing the Aggressive Dog, to add her comments on the light that Debi's piece sheds on the durability of clicker trained cues.

First, Debi's story: The durability of clicker trained cues

My current service dog, Finn, a Border collie, was trained in foundation work by Virginia Broitman—one of the Bow Wow video gals. During the transition from being a pet to working in public places, Virginia spent a week showing me as many of his cued behaviors as she could remember, working with us to become a smooth working team.

Clicker trained cues are very durable, even when we humans have long forgotten them and the behaviors.

Having clicker trained several previous service dogs, I have a set of cues I use regularly and are "default" cues to me. Learning new cues that Finn responded to was difficult, since the cues I have used for decades are somewhat different and tend to pop out unbidden.

During a field trip session in a local casino, Finn was working at picking up objects on the floor, doing a paws-up on the trash can, and pushing the objects into the can. When finished with this, I cued him to fetch his leash and bring it to me. But I accidentally used my normal cue for this behavior, not the one Finn knew.

Finn stood for just a few seconds staring at me, then responded to a word he recognized from my cue phrase, turned his head around, picked up his back leg, and stood there on the casino floor—holding his leg in his mouth!

I couldn't figure out what I had said to get this most unexpected and peculiar behavior, but everyone watching him howled with laughter at the sight of this beautiful dog standing there with his back leg in his mouth like a turkey drumstick.

When she finished laughing along with everyone else, Virginia explained that one cued behavior she forgot to include on my "cheat sheet" was the leg hold. She taught him this in puppyhood as an exercise in learning how hard to place teeth and bite strength on flesh and bone, to help him develop a firm but very gentle grasp. Clicker trained, though he'd not done it in a long time, he still remembered it.

Finn's "leg lift" is a great and very helpful exercise, and unexpected fun behavior to have in his repertoire! Clicker trained cues are very durable, even when we humans have long forgotten them and the behaviors. Though some might not see the value in teaching a behavior such as holding a leg in the mouth, it has been a foundation behavior for another game we play routinely—playing tug with a piece of yarn. The firm but gentle hold is the precursor to teaching the dog to play tug cooperatively instead of competitively, with a give and take movement to keep the yarn taut but never breaking it. It's like a good rider whose reins never go loose-tight, loose-tight. They move with the horse's head. Cooperative instead of competitive tug is so easy to teach with a clicker. And it's a fabulous game for those with limited hand strength to play. It was made easier by Finn knowing about that firm but gentle hold on his own leg.

Emma Parsons comments:

Clicker training almost always results in long-lasting behaviors. One of the greatest benefits of using the clicker to teach new behaviors to our animals is that the principles of operant conditioning and classical conditioning are used simultaneously. The end result is that the clicker trained cues are not only acquired faster, but also become permanently embedded in the animal's brain. They are true learning, acquired through conscious experimentation, rather than habits, acquired through repetition and unconscious association.

After multiple successful experiments, the animal develops confidence and decision-making abilities. These are in themselves reinforcing; learning feels good.

Read about the long-term durability exhibited by a trained leopard that was released in South Africa, in Clicking: the Call of the Wild?

About the author

Debi Davis is an award-winning service dog trainer, and a former member of the ClickerExpo Faculty.

trainer@caninesinaction.com's picture

durability of clicker trained cues

My example is not nearly so crowd-pleasing as Finn's :-) but I was impressed by it. I taught a sendaway under pressure for a trial in 2-3 weeks, using a target initially and then interrupting the run at approximately 80' with a down cue. It worked well (though I don't recommend last minute cram training -- thank God for OC-savvy dogs!), and after the trial I forgot about it.

A full year later, I was going through trial behaviors and asked for the sendaway. Shakespeare remembered it and performed it almost exactly as he had a year ago, learned in such a short period of time. I was amazed at the cue's durability!

Laura &

  • Ascomannis Laevatein YTT RL1 (www.CaninesInAction.blogspot.com, www.clickertraining.com/blog/179)
  • Inky (couch dog)

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